Nearly two years after proposing that food companies eliminate trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils, in their products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will now require the food industry to do so, by 2018.
No Longer Recognized as Safe
By revoking the "generally recognized as safe" status from partially hydrogenated oils, the FDA is essentially requiring companies to scientifically prove the oils' safety or find alternatives.
Proving their safety would be a challenge. Trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils, have been linked by Harvard epidemiologists to tens of thousands of deaths before the adoption of mandatory trans-fat labeling in 2006. That's an astonishing order of magnitude.
Specifically, trans fats have been linked to heart disease and stroke, as well as other serious illnesses.
These fats raise levels of bad cholesterol while also lowering levels of good cholesterol. Good cholesterol, in simple terms, helps clear out the bad stuff. This is why trans fats are considered to be so dangerous.
The FDA estimates the phase-out will cost the food industry $6.2 billion over 20 years as it seeks to reformulate its products. But the move is likely to lead to significant savings in healthcare costs, perhaps as much $140 billion.
Almost Zero, But Not Quite
It's important to note that trans fats will not completely disappear; they occur naturally in meat and dairy products. Even though trans fat consumption has been reduced by close to 80 percent since 2003, the kinds of products that still include them are:
- refrigerated dough products (e.g., cinnamon rolls)
- canned frosting
- frozen pies
- coffee creamer
Why Trans Fat Free Doesn't Mean Trans Fat Free
While many products now claim to be trans fat free, it doesn't necessarily mean they are trans fat free. Yes, you read that right. There is a labeling loophole that allows food companies to round down to zero if a product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving.
That's not much, you might think, so no big deal. But the thing is, those seemingly minuscule fractions of a gram can add up over the course of the day, especially, if as many of us do, we confuse serving size with portion size -- i.e., we eat more than the stated serving size.
Long before the FDA considered revoking the GRAS status of trans fats, the Institute of Medicine back in 2002 said there was no safe level of trans fatty acid consumption.
What Will Replace Trans Fats?
What are the alternatives? Well, they're not ideal. Palm oil, a plant-based saturated fat, is increasingly being used, and this raises some environmental concerns. Companies like Monsanto are working on modified soybean oils that will be both heart healthy and good for frying foods, but many are opposed to genetically modified foods.
Companies such as McDonald's, who long ago reformulated their cooking oils, have been able to successfully make the change. Its big concern was how a new kind of oil would change the texture and flavor of its signature fries. While the company may have been struggling of late, its french fries are still hugely popular.
The Best Way to Eliminate Trans Fats Before 2018
In general, the best way to avoid ingesting artificially produced trans fats is to limit your intake of processed food in the first place. Requiring the food industry to remove trans fats is a big step, of course, but these products will still contain an excessive amount of fat, sodium, sugar, and overall calories.