Well, it’s about time! The governmental watchdog that’s supposed to be guarding the health of Americans is finally showing some teeth. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration, which has a mission of “Protecting and Promoting Your Health,”has announced that it’s finally considering totally banning trans fat in American food supply.
Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are “not generally recognized as safe” for use in food. Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the FDA’s commissioner, said a ban could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.
While the fact that the trans fats in many of our baked and packaged goods endangers lives may be new to you, it’s yesterday’s news to Michael Jacobson, who heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The consumer advocacy organization operates with a twin mission to conduct innovative research and advocacy programs in health and nutrition, and to provide consumers with current, useful information about their health and well-being. CSPI has been advocating for a trans fat ban for 20 years – ever since studies strongly linked trans fat to heart disease.
CSPI has filed lawsuits, created petitions, faced down food companies, and pushed legislators to pay attention to the increased risk for heart disease from trans fat. And they’ve created change. Back in 2006, trans fat had to be labeled clearly on a food product. That labeling got the public’s attention, which led to some food manufacturers and fast food restaurants proactively eliminating or limiting trans fat in their foods. McDonald’s was one of the first to eliminate the use. Unilever – makers of such well-known products as Ben & Jerry’s, Ragu, Hellmann’s and Bertolli – announced last year that 100% of its products are free of added hydrogenated fat. Not all food makers are so responsible.
Unfortunately, this labeling law didn’t have the sharpest teeth. Manufacturers were allowed up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving and still have the right to proclaim its food contained “zero” grams of the stuff. It meant that people could wind up eating too much even if they thought they were not.
Gobble a couple of servings of microwave popcorn, a tablespoon of peanut butter, and some icing from a cake and you could be getting several grams a day. And if you’re dining out, all bets are off. There’s no guarantee that the foods you order haven’t been fried in hydrogenated fat.
But all fats are not equal. Some fats are even healthful! Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids – such as some fatty fish (tuna, mackerel, sardines), and nuts (walnuts especially) – are heart-healthy. So are fats from seeds and nuts, and from olives and avocado (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). Saturated fat found in whole-milk dairy and fatty meats may be linked to higher “bad” LDL cholesterol, but won’t have a negative (lowering) effect on “good” HDL cholesterol.
The FDA notes that the independent Institute of Medicine (IOM) has concluded that transfat provides no known health benefit and that there is no safe level of consumption of artificial trans fat.
By the way, some foods contain small amounts of trans fat naturally. The list includes grass-fed dairy and livestock. We’re concerned about the added trans fat – or fake fat – that’s added to processed and prepared foods. It’s created in the lab by hydrogenating liquid vegetable oil and it’s conclusively linked to an artery-clogging risk.
For science-minded readers, Wikipedia has an exhaustive article describing trans fat development (as a cheap alternative to butter that was first popularized in the 1920s), its chemistry, health risks and the response by the public and the food industry to attempts at regulation over the years. The USA is following the lead of more than a dozen countries that have had in place total bans on the stuff—some bans have been in effect for many years. For example, enlightened Denmark was the first country to strictly ban added trans fat from all food – way back in 2003. It’s hypothesized that the Danish government’s efforts has decreased coronary heart disease by 50% and saved thousands of lives.
It’s easy to avoid trans fat right now, just by being a savvy consumer. Read the ingredient label first, before even peeking at the Nutrition Facts. Remember, a food may contain up to 0.5 grams of hydrogenated fat per serving, and still that second line will read “0” next to trans fat.) Skip any product that lists “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list.
There’s already some controversy about what food manufacturers are using to replace trans fat – ingredients such as highly saturated palm and coconut oils. The American Heart Association recommends using naturally occurring, unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower or olive oil most often.
Susan Burke March is Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator, who as eDiets Chief Nutritionist promotes the dietary health and wellbeing of consumers worldwide.