Perhaps the urban legend that most startles each new batch of grade-school children is the fabled inability of the stomach to break down swallowed bubble gum. Though parents may laugh at a child’s needless anxiety over a growing ball of Bazooka in his belly, the hype created by food activists has spawned a similar myth among adults: the inability to break down trans fats, leading to a gradual build-up in the body.
This story has been spread through newspapers, blogs, and locker room gossip, but a Canadian paper best summed up the ballyhoo on April 5, asserting that trans fats accumulate in arteries "much like bacon grease clogging up the kitchen pipes." Sensational, yes. True, no.
In fact, trans fats (or any other type of fat in our food for that matter) don’t even make it past the intestines intact, much less directly into circulation. Consequently, the fictional build-up cannot occur.
According to Bill Harlan, former director of disease prevention at the National Institutes of Health, this tension between public health advocacy and reliable scientific information is fueled in part by health activists and headline-hungry reporters. He told Science magazine that "[researchers are] all being pushed by people who say, ‘Give me the simple answer. Is it or isn’t it?’ They don’t want the answer after we finish a study in 5 years. They want it now. No equivocation. … [And so] we constantly get pushed into positions we may not want to be in and cannot justify scientifically."