On November 7th, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed measures that will remove trans fat, also known as partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), from the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list. This sets up a 60-day comment period of what would be a reasonable timeframe for a phase out. Once phased out, PHOs would be considered food additives and could not be used without authorization. Meaning a food manufacturer would have to prove scientifically that PHOs are safe to eat, which would be a difficult task since the Institute of Medicine and the American Heart Association have concluded that there is no safe level for consumption of artificial trans fat.
Trans fat became popular during World War II when butter was rationed. Food manufacturers and people began using margarine and shortening as an alternative. Food manufacturers like the product because it is not as expensive as butter, has a longer shelf life and gives food a good texture and flavor. If you remember back to the 80’s we had the low-fat diet craze and advocacy groups started a campaign to stop using saturated fat in the form of beef tallow and tropical oils, trans fat became the replacement. For decades now we have seen scientific evidence that shows PHOs are worse than any other fat for health because they raise our LDL (bad cholesterol) and lower our HDL (good ☺ cholesterol). It is estimated trans fat consumption leads to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths per year, and it’s important to note that heart disease is still the number one cause of death in the U.S.
Trans fats have been phased out at restaurants and food manufacturers have done a good job of removing then from soft (tub) spreads. But it is still being used in a lot of popular foods such as microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, some desserts, coffee creamers, and refrigerated dough products. Also, a product may state it is “trans fat free” if it contains less than 0.5 grams per serving.
Although it looks like trans fats will be a thing of the past I worry about what the alternative will be. Food manufacturers will not be switching to butter; it’s too expensive and has a short shelf life. Then there are interesterified vegetable oils which have its liquid structure altered via chemicals or enzymes to make them more solid and/or more stable. Interesterified oils have been around since the 1950s but some recent scientific studies have shown negative biological effects on lipoproteins, blood glucose, insulin, immune function, or liver enzymes when high intake is consumed. Furthermore, food manufacturers can label foods as trans-fat free and saturated-fat free, making it very difficult for the average consumer to decipher whether a particular food product contains interesterified fats. The terms “fully hydrogenated,” “palm oil,” or “palm kernel oil” also indicates that interesterified fats are in manufacturing.
It is a good thing that trans-fat will be removed from our food supply in the near future for the health of all. Although it will still remain important to be a smart label reader when shopping. Eat in good health.