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The Food and Drug Administration wants to get rid of trans fats in processed foods, such as donuts, frozen pizza and margarine.
The agency now classifies trans fats as “generally recognized as safe,” but the proposed rules would withdraw that status.
Trans fats have been shown to be a contributor to heart disease, and a dozen or so localities across the country have already banned trans fats from restaurants.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the issue.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
The food in our restaurants and kitchens may soon be a bit healthier. The Food and Drug Administration proposed yesterday to deem trans fats unsafe, which would essentially remove them from the U.S. food supply. Trans fats can still be found in processed food including donuts, frozen pizza and margarine, and they are big contributors to heart disease.
Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. She writes the blog Food Politics. I spoke with her earlier today and started by asking her what she had for breakfast.
MARION NESTLE: I turn out not to be a breakfast eater, shocking as that may seem.
NESTLE: I don't like to eat unless I'm hungry. So I'll be having cereal and fruit probably at about 11:00.
HOBSON: So I see that your first reaction to this news is, isn't trans fat already out of the food supply?
NESTLE: Well, yes, because in 2003 the FDA required trans fats to be labeled on food packages. And companies miraculously got rid of it just like that. By the time the label rule went into effect, most of the big companies had already gotten rid of it. And most other companies continued afterwards. So all that's really left is the loophole. And the loophole says that if the amount of trans fat in a product is less than half a gram per serving, then it can be listed as zero on the label. And so this new rule will take care of that loophole.
HOBSON: But when we see the FDA number that Americans still do have about a gram a day of trans fats, where are they getting that? Where are we getting our one gram of trans fats?
NESTLE: Well, they're getting it from processed foods and restaurant foods. Processed foods like cookies and various kinds of packaged - they're kind of an indicator of junk food. If there's partially hydrogenated oils in the food, you're dealing with something that's really highly processed, and the cost of it is being kept as low as possible.
These are artificial fats, and there are lots of substitutes for them. There's no reason why they still need to be around. And it's not that food companies are being resistant or opposing the FDA on this. It's that most of them just really don't know the difference between partially hydrogenated oils and other kinds of oils. Oil chemistry is complicated.
HOBSON: Well, and sometimes when one bad thing goes away, another bad thing takes its place. Are you worried about that, that maybe the solution to increasing the shelf life and flavor of foods is going to be something even worse than trans fats?
NESTLE: Well, it won't be worse. It'll just - the problems will just be different. The reason that companies partially hydrogenated oils is to make them thicker. And saturated fats, which are the ones that raise heart disease risk, are thicker, and so companies may use tropical oils that are very high in saturated fats to substitute for the ones that have trans fats. But trans fats are worse. So whatever it is, we come out ahead on health.
HOBSON: What is the next step? What do you think, if you could have your dream come true and the FDA were to now build on this with something else, what do you think the next thing the FDA needs to do to make us all healthier?
NESTLE: Well, I'm hoping that the FDA is going to get moving on the things it's been working on for the last several years. They'd never released their rules on many labeling. You know, calorie labeling in restaurants. Let's get those out.
HOBSON: That's part of the Obama health care law, you're saying.
NESTLE: Right. That was part of the health care laws three years ago, and we don't have them yet. Get moving on that. And then they have promised to propose rules to revise food labels and bring food labels into the modern age. They're now 20 years old and it's time to rethink them. And those rules haven't been released yet either. So I'm hoping that they'll get moving on those. And they've been working on all kinds of initiatives and have been under wraps. And now it looks to me like they're being let loose to start doing some of the things that they've promised to do. And I think that's a really good sign.
HOBSON: Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. You can find a link to her blog at our website, hereandnow.org. Marion, thank you so much.
NESTLE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.