Hold the Trans Fat

Targeting Processed Foods and Artificial Additives
Written by: 
Molly Shaw

Two little words in the third line of many nutrition facts labels – trans-fat – have been causing big problems since scientists developed the man-made fat over 100 years ago. While for years most Americans have been eating trans fats in their favorite foods, including cookies, crackers, cakes, candy, chips, muffins, French fries, coffee creamers and frozen dinners, without realizing its dangers, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is cracking down, calling for a complete ban on the ingredient.

Trans-fats came onto the market approximately a century ago, under the alias, partially hydrogenated oil. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), trans-fat quickly became popular with consumers and food manufacturers for its excellence as a preservative, giving foods a longer shelf life and a more temping taste and texture.

A Slippery Slope and a Dangerous Discovery

The hydrogenation process was first discovered around the turn of the 20th century. The discovery made it possible to produce partially hydrogenated fat, which is otherwise referred to as trans-fatty acid or trans-fat. “It was the first man-made fat to join our food supply. Many American kitchens were first introduced to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in 1911 with the release of Crisco shortening.” –AHA’s website states.

Trans-fat continued to gain widespread popularity during World War II when people switched to margarine and shortening as a substitute for rationed butter. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that scientists and health advocates, including the AHA, proposed that reducing dietary fats, mainly saturated fat found in foods like butter and beef, can reduce the chance of developing heart disease. 

In response, many fast-food companies, including McDonald’s, began using partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) containing trans-fat for frying, instead of oils high in saturated fats. Decades later, in the 1990s, numerous studies revealed correlations between trans-fatty acids and increased LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and high incidence of heart disease. The results proved that, in fact, trans-fats were more dangerous than saturated fats, and the question of labeling the harmful ingredient became a hotbed for national discussion between scientists, food manufacturers and health advocates and organizations.

In 2006 the FDA stepped in, requiring food companies to add trans-fats to all food nutrition labels. Most companies responded by drastically cutting the use of PHOs; the results on consumption were dramatic. According to the FDA, in 2012 Americans consumed about 1 gram per day, which is down from 4.6 grams per day in 2003. 

Clearly, trans fats have not completely disappeared from American food. Consumers can still find trans fats in microwave popcorn, frozen pies and TV dinners and all other kinds of mass-produced baked goods because, more often than not, food companies use only very little. In fact, under current FDA regulations, if there is less than a half gram of trans-fat per serving, food manufacturers can list the amount in the products as zero.

The Artificial Outlaw

However, the FDA and other public health awareness organizations are fighting to change all of that. The FDA announced in early November 2013 that it is aiming to ban partially hydrogenated vegetable oils from all food products. Margaret Hamburg, FDA commissioner, declared in a news conference that the agency has come to the preliminary conclusion that the oils, “are not generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for use in food.”

Once the FDA’s decision is final it means a complete ban on the ingredient and takes us one step closer to the end of the trans-fat era. If the measure goes through, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate the ban could prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year.

“Part of the FDA’s responsibility to the public is to ensure that food in the American food supply is safe,” says Dennis M. Keefe, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s office of food additive safety. “If the FDA determines that PHOs are not GRAS, it could in effect mean the end of artificial, industrially-produced trans fat in foods. The FDA is soliciting comments on how such an action would impact small businesses and how to ensure a smooth transition if a final determination is issued.”

However, according to Keefe, trans-fat would not be completely gone. “Trans-fat also occurs naturally in trace amounts in meat and dairy products and is also present at very low levels in other edible oils, such as fully hydrogenated oils, where it is unavoidably produced during the manufacturing process,” Keefe explains.

As Americans become more aware of what’s in their food and demand that potentially dangerous artificial additives be left out, the food industry is in the midst of a transition for the better. That bag of chips or package of cookies might not last as long in the pantry; however, we might live longer as a result. •