Well, it’s taken more than 20 years, but the FDA has finally ruled that any amount of trans fat, also known as partially hydrogenated oils, found in manufactured food is not “generally recognized as safe” for human health. Food manufacturers are now required to reformulate their products and phase out all partially hydrogenated oils within the next 3 years. Over the last decade, in response to public pressure and the 2006 FDA ruling that required manufacturers to disclose trans fat content on food labels, many food manufacturers have removed all but trace amount of trans fats from their food brands. This new ruling means that trans fats will need to be eliminated from products that have not yet been reformulated. Ideally, all trans fats should be removed, as a little bit here and a little bit there can add up to a total of one gram or more of trans fat daily per person and, according to the FDA, that’s still too much.
Trans fats can be found in deep-fried foods, margarine, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, baking items such as frosting, cake and pancake mixes, canned soups, frozen foods, baked goods, chips and even coffee creamers. In fact, research shows manufacturers use artificial trans fat ingredients in 27% of the 84,000 processed foods found in local supermarkets, as trans fats enable a longer shelf life for manufactured foods and give food an appealing texture. Trans fat consumption is believed to lead to obesity, higher cholesterol levels and heart disease. According to the FDA, trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils are accountable for 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year.
The estimated costs to food manufacturers for the elimination of trans fats range from $6-14 billion and, according to the FDA, removal of these deleterious fats could save up to $242 billion in health care costs. Food scientists will need to research and test new ingredients, reformulate recipes and re-label products. Obviously, this is no easy or inexpensive task, which is why manufacturers have been given 3 years to comply. Some consumer groups are disappointed that the FDA did not set a shorter deadline. And there’s a caveat, a loophole that still allows food manufacturers to claim a product is “trans fat free” if there is less than 0.5 grams per serving. We all know that many packages contain multiple servings but are consumed as one serving, meaning that several grams of trans fats may still be consumed from a single product.
This ruling does not prevent the use of refined oils or full hydrogenated oils that may contain hidden sources of trans fats. In addition, the powerful and influential Grocery Manufacturers Association is reportedly petitioning the FDA to allow them to continue the use of trans fats if there is a “reasonable certainty of no harm” from some specific uses of the fats. If that doesn’t alarm you, maybe the notion of a “food scientist” designing your food should. In the meantime, it is still up to consumers to avoid trans fats by avoiding processed foods entirely and opting for healthier whole food alternatives.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat consumption to 1% or less of the total calories consumed daily. Healthy fats, such as those found naturally in fish, nuts and olives, support cardiac and brain health and aid in reducing blood pressure and triglyceride levels. Many are wondering how long it will take before the FDA officially recognizes that the saturated fats found in foods like grass fed beef and dairy products, coconut and cheese will be declared healthy once again. These foods had been enjoyed for centuries before being demonized by half truths and flawed science that unduly influenced the American Heart Association dietary recommendations and USDA dietary guidelines that recommended limiting all fats, even healthy fats.
Unfortunately, the oversaturation of trans fats in the American diet and 60 years of recommendations to avoid saturated fats and dietary cholesterol has led to the rise of sugar consumption and increased the risks for metabolic syndrome, high triglycerides and low levels of good HDL cholesterol. Even more concerning, it led to the development of the very lucrative cholesterol-lowering drug market and, in the opinion of author Dr. John Abramson, an “overdosed America.”
Americans are getting wiser and have made butter the comeback kid, as consumers reach for what science shows are actually healthier options. The food manufacturers had no choice but to follow, yet junk science still persists with an “anti-saturated fat” dogma. Don’t expect changing recommendations any time soon, as what’s really at stake here may not be just concern for public health but the protection of the multi-billion dollar cholesterol-lowering medication industry.
So while we can applaud the new FDA rules, perhaps a slight deviation of “caveat emptor” should guide our nutrition choices. As opposed to “let the buyer beware,” maybe “let the buyer be aware” should influence how we shop for food, how we decipher food labels and what foods we choose to eat. Good health begins with good nutrition, so do your research, be your own health advocate and choose wisely. Scientifically designed food? Statins? No thanks, I think I’ll have an apple and some really wonderful aged cheddar cheese to go along with it. Perhaps then I’ll take a walk around the neighborhood to keep my healthy cholesterol levels up and the not so healthy cholesterol levels down.
Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fat)
Time Magazine: We Were Wrong About Saturated Fats
FDA Trans Fat Ban Littered With Loopholes: Health Advocates
Artificial Trans Fat: A Timeline