Trans fatty acids are systemic poisons lurking in the food of some of your favorite local restaurants in Portland, as well as being on sale at our beloved farmers markets.
Recent research by Fred Kummerow of the University of Illinois has illuminated the mechanism for the cellular damage caused by trans fatty acids, an industrial contaminant occurring as a ubiquitous byproduct in partially hydrogenated food additives.
Kummerow's research suggests that, while these chemicals can substitute in chemical reactions for naturally occurring essential fatty acids, their different physical properties lethally impair cellular function. In particular, by getting permanently taken up by cell membranes and altering their permeability, they seem to induce or accelerate the formation of scar tissue, particularly in the cardiovascular tissues of the heart and brain.
See, for example, http://tinyurl.com/lrld3l
Because of their persistence and the long-lasting, insidious damage they are implicated in, the latest research indicates that these substances are most appropriately to be treated as systemic poisons, comparable to such poisons as toxic heavy metals, or persistent organic toxins like PCBs. Unlike the latter poisons, however, they only occur in food due to deliberate introduction during the cooking and food preparation processes.
Thus, it is exclusively the responsibility of food service professionals and manufacturers to protect patrons from these toxins.
Sadly, widespread ignorance still persists about these hazards, due to very haphazard and piecemeal regulation. FDA has imposed only fairly lax labelling requirements on processed food manufacturers. Nonetheless, most large manufacturers and food service chains have been racing to eliminate these chemicals from their products due to liability and regulatory concerns, as well as reputation and public relations concerns. It is mainly among smaller "mom-and-pop" operations where the use of these compounds persists and ignorance is most common. These chemicals are to be found even in the prepared food products at our local farmers markets -- particularly chilling in light of the fact that patrons of such venues are probably more likely to be expecting wholesome foods in such places.
A more systematic education effort is called for to address such hazards. In the wake of the FDA's seeming abdication of responsibility, it is incumbent on members of local communities to take upon themselves the responsibility for protecting their own community's health and safety. In the longer term, something like a Fair Trade "Code of Ethical Conduct" is probably called for, applying the kinds of principles of care for human wellbeing and the natural environment that the Fair Trade movement has pioneered internationally, only this time on the domestic and local levels.