Dr. Mary Enig doesn’t look like someone who would inspire fear or animosity in anybody, much less the nation’s behemoth food industry and the army of lobbyists that backs it up. With her thick glasses and bramble of gray hair, Enig, who uses a walker, seems more of an endearing grandmother. Her sentences tend to wander off into minutiae—about her husband’s work or a recent snag at the post office. She doesn’t slice through issues with the acuity of a scientist. Yet some 30 years ago, as a graduate student, Enig stumbled upon research suggesting that the official line being touted by the government and the corporate food world was probably a long way from the truth. In the years that followed, she pursued the matter with a vengeance. And she still has the enemies to prove it.
“Here’s the paper I wrote that made me realize just how much hot water I could get myself into on this issue,” says Enig, shuffling through files in the suburban Maryland offices of the consulting firm Enig and Associates, where she is director of the nutritional services division. Even at age 73, the semi-retired Enig manages to exude an air of industry and determination. She pulls out a folder now wilting with age and waves a 1978 article published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. In it, she argued that a major government report correlating cancer with saturated fats was, in fact, wrong. The data cited in the report showed a much stronger link between cancer and trans fats, asserted Enig, and deserved further study.
“Not too long after that, these two guys from the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils—the trans fat lobby, basically—visited me and, boy, were they angry,” she recalls. “They said they’d been keeping a careful watch to prevent articles like mine from coming out in the literature and didn’t know how this horse had gotten out of the barn.”
By now most everybody has heard about trans fats. Present in a great many cookies, candies, cakes, crackers, margarines, and fried foods, they were all over the news last July, when the Food and Drug Administration announced that, beginning in 2006, it would require manufacturers to print information about the substance on nutrition labels.
The decision came shortly after a report issued in 2002 by the National Academy of Sciences—the government’s definitive authority on all matters scientific—revealed findings that were incontestably grim. Trans fats were found to raise the bad kind of cholesterol, called LDL, and to lower HDL, the good kind. In short, the NAS discovered, they cause heart disease.
And that may be the least of it. Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Medical School, who oversees the largest ongoing dietary study in America and is a recognized authority on trans fats, has found that for every 4 to 5 grams of trans fat you eat, your risk of heart disease nearly doubles. (He estimates that, on average, Americans consume some 5 to 6 grams of trans fats daily.) By Willett’s calculation, of the half million Americans who die prematurely each year from heart disease—the leading cause of death in this country—at least 30,000 are killed by trans fats. Other studies have suggested (but not yet proven) significant links between trans fats and type 2 diabetes as well as asthma. Some research suggests that fetal development—especially with respect to birth weight and the central nervous system—could also be adversely affected by trans fats, and that their presence in breast milk is detrimental to other, essential fats that keep babies healthy.
Another exiled food item. It sometimes seems as if dietary guidelines are issued by a mercurial emperor. Saturated fats, once considered an angry terrorist to your arteries, are now considered by many scientists to be allies in some respects. Tropical oils, formerly the subject of full-page newspaper ads claiming that they practically kill on contact, are also being welcomed back into the fat fold.
Even more galling than the constantly changing information we get from so-called authorities, though, is the question of how something as harmful as trans fats managed to make its way into 40 percent of baked goods (cookies, crackers, cakes, etc.) despite warnings dating back nearly 50 years.
Trans fats are a multibillion dollar a year industry; companies that hydrogenate oils include Bunge Foods, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland. (And the list of manufacturers that use trans fats in their products accounts for almost every major company in the food industry: Kraft, Nabisco, Kellogg, and Nestlé are just a few.) Many of the companies that hydrogenate are represented by the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils, which for decades has been quietly working to squelch bad news about trans fats. As far back as 1968, the ISEO was mentioned in an internal memo written by the medical director of the American Heart Association: According to the memo, the ISEO objected to the AHA’s intention to include a warning about trans fats in its dietary guidelines; subsequently, the AHA took it out. (No one at the agency has any recollection of this incident, and though Dr. Rose Marie Robertson, the AHA’s current chief science officer, admits that the agency “often talks to the industry,” she stresses that she “has never seen a corporate issue be a deciding factor in anything [she’s] been involved in.”)