Kicking Trans Fats to the Curb

chicken biscuits

image courtesy of bettybl on flickr 

There was big nutrition news today.  The Food and Drug Administration made a major announcement that could potentially eliminate artificial trans fats from our food supply – which would be a tremendous move. That was  the topic of my latest post for WebMD’s Real Life Nutrition blog.


Granted, the food industry has taken numerous steps to reduce or eliminate trans fats by using healthier oils and reformulating products. That’s all good. Yet, there are so many foods that still contain partially hydrogenated oils, the major source of trans fats in our diet. These solid fats are especially abundant in all those finger-licking fried foods that come out of a deep-fryer or off a conveyor belt.  You’ll also find lots of trans fats when you make a stop at a bakery or doughnut shop. They’re hidden in pastries, piecrusts, cupcakes, cookies and biscuits. Stick margarines and shortenings, along with many types of crackers, microwave popcorn, coffee creamers and canned frostings are also laden with trans fats.

So even after the mandatory labeling of trans fats in 2006 and the multiple public health campaigns that have warned about the health concerns, our consumption of trans fats in this country is still too high. The Institute of Medicine has concluded that there is no safe level for consumption of trans fats. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a further reduction of trans fat in the food supply could prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year.

This is serious stuff. That’s why a bold measure like this makes sense. Under the new FDA proposal, which is open for public comment for 60 days, the agency would classify partially hydrogenated oils as no longer “generally recognized as safe.” That’s huge. If a food additive does not have GRAS status, it would need premarket approval by FDA. That means companies would need to provide scientific evidence that partially hydrogenated oils are safe to eat – and that would be next to impossible, considering all the studies that have documented the dangers.

Foods containing unapproved food additives are considered adulterated and could not be legally sold. So that means food manufacturers would need to find a way to completely phase out the use of partially hydrogenated oils – which means trans fats would be essentially squeezed out of our food supply.

Of course, that doesn’t mean all trans fats would be completely gone because small amounts occur naturally in the fat found in meat and dairy products. Yet, the concern has been focused on the man-made trans fats in processed foods, and the FDA proposal only applies to trans fats that are added to foods.

So what exactly is a trans fat?

Trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oil to create a fat that remains solid at room temperature and won’t go bad as quickly. While this may offer some useful traits for cooking and baking, the process is not good for our health. Trans fats are particularly troubling because they not only raise LDL or “bad” cholesterol that promotes heart disease, they also lower HDL or the “good” kind of cholesterol that helps protect against heart disease. So it’s a cholesterol double whammy.

shortening

 StudioZ7 on flickr

A lot has changed since Mike Wallace was touting the benefits of shortening in this TV commercial from 1955.

“Getting rid of artificial trans fat is one of the most important life-saving measures the FDA could take,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has been raising the issue of trans fats for years. “Thousands of heart attack deaths will be prevented in the years ahead. The FDA deserves credit for letting science, and not politics, shape its new proposed policy on artificial trans fat.”

It will be some time before trans fats are totally kicked to the curb (if the regulation passes) so here’s what you should know in the meantime:

  • Even if a food claims on its package to have “0 grams trans fat” it’s still important to look at the ingredients for partially hydrogenated oils. Under current regulations, companies can make that claim if the food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. So if you eat multiple servings – and who wouldn’t when it comes to something like microwave popcorn – you could be getting more trans fats than you bargained for.
  • You may see 0 trans fat listed on the label, but don’t lose sight of the saturated fat and the total calories in the product. Sometimes we can get so fixated on one aspect, that we ignore the bigger picture. Don’t let “no trans fat” be a health halo that causes you to eat twice as much.  Don’t let it be the new “fat-free” that simply encouraged people to eat more of something because they thought it was “healthy.”
  • Read ingredient labels and not just the nutrition facts panel. If you see “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” the food has a small amount of trans fat even if the label say 0. The higher up on the list, the more trans fats will be inside. If you see “shortening,” it will likely contain some trans fats.
  • Some foods, of course, don’t have labels — like what you’re ordering at your corner bakery or drive-thru. Many restaurants have switched to healthier oils, but don’t hesitate to ask what oil your food was prepared in or what specific ingredients were used (although be prepared, your waitstaff may not know).
  • As products are reformulated, be sure you still read the fine print.  You want to be sure the replacement fat is an improvement — and not simply a lateral switch (or worse).  You still need to look at total and saturated fat.
  • But at the end of the day, if you want a slice of cake or a hot biscuit with dinner — one single food is not going to make a huge difference, especially if eaten only occassionally.

I’m typically not in favor of legislating healthy behaviors.  But I think in this case, it will help make positive changes to our food supply.  It will spark new product development and reformulations of existing products — even though it will be challenging to match the taste and texture of so many of the foods people love. It’ a bold move, for sure.  But it’s an important step to help improve America’s health.

For more information, visit FDA Consumer Health Information: FDA Targets Trans Fat in Processed Foods.

 

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