MARY ENIG was a lone whistle blower drawing attention to the dangers of trans fats – and fighting big businesses that tried to silence her – during the late 1970s and 1980s.
Enig was a graduate student of biochemistry at the University of Maryland when, in 1977, the US Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by Senator George McGovern, released its Dietary Goals for the United States.
The Dietary Goals stated categorically that "the overconsumption of fat, generally, and saturated fat in particular. . . have been related to six of the ten leading causes of death. . ." in the United States.
And the report urged Americans to reduce overall fat intake and to substitute polyunsaturates for saturated fat from animal sources – use margarine and corn oil instead of butter, lard and tallow.
Puzzled by McGovern Committee report
Mary Enig was puzzled by the McGovern Commitee Report. She knew that:
Mary Enig analysed the US Department of Agriculture data that the McGovern Committee had used and reached the opposite conclusions. She found:
In other words, Mary Enig discovered that the consumption of vegetable oils seemed to increase the risks of cancer, while the consumption of animal fats seemed to protect against cancer.
She noted that the analysts for the McGovern committee had manipulated the data in inappropriate ways in order to obtain untruthful results.
Role of trans fats in cancer
Mary Enig submitted her findings to the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), in May, 1978, and her article was published in the Federation Proceedings in July. This was an unusually quick turnaround time for a scientific paper to get published.
In her paper, Mary Enig said her findings suggested that trans fats might play a role in increasing cancer risks, and she called for further investigation.
It is significant that Mary Enig's paper was published by the FASEB. Two years earlier, in 1976, the Life Sciences Research office, the scientific research arm of FASEB, had published a paper that said:
"There is no evidence in the available information on hydrogenated soybean oil that demonstrates or suggests reasonable ground to suspect a hazard to the public when it is used as a direct or indirect food ingredient at levels that are now current or that might reasonably be expected in the future."
That paper led to the US Food and Drug Administration placing partially hydrogenated soybean oil onto the GRAS list of foods declared to be “generally recognized as safe”.
More research on trans fats
Mary Enig and her colleagues at the University of Maryland continued their research, focusing on two main areas:
Research grants, however, were not forthcoing. Over the years, Joseph Sampagna and Mark Keeney, both highly qualified lipid biochemists at the University of Maryland, applied for fundiing from various foundations and research institutes. Only the National Livestock and Meat Board gave a small grant for equipment; the others turned them down.
Mary Enig and other graduate students worked for little or no pay, helping the researchers. Finally, in October 1983, the study results were published.
What Enig and her colleagues found that:
Based on analyses of more than 220 food items, plus other data, University of Maryland researchers to confirm earlier estimates that the average American consumed at least 12 grams of trans fat per day. Those who consciously avoided animal fats typically consumed far more than 12 grams of trans fat per day.
This contradicted the assertions of the Institute for Shortening and Edible Oils (ISEO) that most Americans consumed no more that six to eight grams of trans fat per day.
Still a lone voice
Early in 1985, the FASEB heard more testimony on the trans fat issue. Mary Enig was still alone in highlighting their dangers. Representatives of the Institute for Shortening and Edible Oils (ISEO) and the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers, assured the panel that trans fats in the food supply posed no danger.
Mary Enig testified again in 1988 before the Expert Panel on the National Nutrition Monitoring System (NNMS).
At that time, she and her fellow University of Maryland researchers were already calling for trans fats to be included in food nutrition facts labels. But those calls were largely ignored as the vegetable oils industry continued to assure that trans fats posed no danger.
And so the battle between Mary Enig and the vegetable oils industry continued into the 1990s, By that time America – and the rest of the world – had become almost totally convinced that saturated fats were bad and that vegetable oils, including trans fats, were healthy.
Fats during the 1990s
In America during the 1990s, consumption of butter had dropped to a low of about 5 grams per person per day, down from almost 18 at the turn of the century. The use of lard and tallow had been reduced by two-thirds.
On the other hand, margarine consumption jumped from less than 2 grams per person per day in 1909 to about 11 grams in 1960 – and remained at roughly that level.
Until the 1960s, the use of shortening held steady at about 10 grams per person per day. However, the content of shortening had radically changed. Before, it was mostly lard, tallow and coconut oil—all natural fats. Now, it became almost exclusively partially hydrogenated soybean oil.
Then shortening consumption shot up. By 1993, the level tripled to over 30 grams per person per day.
The most dramatic overall change, however, was the huge increase in the consumption of liquid vegetable oils. In 1909, it was less than 2 grams per person per day in 1909. In 1993, it had risen to over 30 grams – a 15-fold increase!
It looked as if Mary Enig and her fellow researchers at Maryland University were losing their battle. Their assertions about the dangers of trans fats – and the goodness of saturated fats – were largely ignored.
Finally, the tide began to turn with new evidence against trans fats coming in, particularly from Europe.
Still, this was not enough to put people off margarine. Instead, the vegetable oils industry – and the press – responded by promoting tub spreads, which contain lower levels of trans compared to stick margarine.
Till today, the Singapore Health Promotion Board continues to do the same, adopting a position that is at least 10 years out of date.
Enter Walter Willett
Walter Willett had, in 1989, initiated the Nurses Health Study II – a massive study first established in 1976 by Dr Frank Speizer, which monitored the health condition of 120,000 nurses to assess risk factors for cancer and heart disease.
Initially, Walter Willett did not take trans fats into account, and he found that dietary fat consumption increased the rates of both heart disease and cancer.
After his researchers contacted Mary Enig about the trans fats data, they confirmed that nurses with higher rates of cancer were those who consumed more margarine and vegetable shortenings – not those who ate butter, eggs, cheese and meat.
This correlation between trans fat and cancer was never published, but was reported at the Baltimore Data Bank Conference in 1992.
In 1993 Walter Willett's research group at Harvard found that trans contributed to heart disease. Unlike Mary Enig, however, Walter Willett was not ignored and his findings were widely reported in the press.
Thus, the scene was set for new battles against trans fats.
Mary Enig started in the late 1970s virtually as a lone campaigner. Today, she has found many allies as well as followers. She is well-respected as one of the world's leading authorities on trans fats.
Finally, she is making headway as more people realise the harm of trans fats and the goodness of saturated fats.
Yet the battle is still far from won. Many within the anti-trans fat lobby continue to advise consumers to also cut down their consumption of saturated fats. It is hard to fight an idea that is so deeply entrenched.
Mary Enig fights on.
You can read many excellent articles about fats and oils by Mary Enig at the website of the And she has written a book, Know Your Fats : The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol.
Mary Enig has, meanwhile, also moved on to fight new battles, one of which is against the disease Aids. Her latest book is titled Nutrients and Foods in Aids.