This week was a huge win for Americans, whether health-conscious or not. On June 16, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it has officially determined that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the source of artificial trans fats, are not Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) for human food. The FDA made this preliminary decision in November 2013, though this latest action-oriented version requires that food makers completely phase out PHOs by 2018.
This is a tough decision to swallow for the food industry, which has been using PHOs/trans fats since the 1950s to improve foods’ texture, stability and shelf life inexpensively. The change will be costly and inconvenient for food manufacturers who must now reformulate existing products, though these improvements will be a big breath of fresh air for consumers.
What are trans fats and why are they considered unsafe?
Combining hydrogen and liquid vegetable oils leads to synthetic trans fats like margarine, shortening and frying oils. Since its invention by Wilhelm Normann in the 1900s, trans fats have been used increasingly in food products. Inexpensive to produce, they were particularly ideal for commercial use for making packaged and shelf foods last longer.
The effects of trans fats on health were not questioned until human and animal studies in the 1970s suggested they promoted heart disease, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In the 1990s, “epidemiology studies established clear-cut evidence that industrially produced trans fat caused heart disease.” Now, it is known that trans fats indeed have a double whammy effect on health since it both increases LDL, or bad cholesterol, known to promote heart disease, and decreases HDL, or good cholesterol, associated with reducing risk. In addition, trans fats could be linked to increased insulin resistance and risk for type 2 diabetes.
The FDA’s decision to rid the food supply of trans fats comes at a time when heart disease and stroke are still considered top killers of Americans. According to the American Heart Association, “more than 787,000 people in the U.S. died from heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases in 2010. That’s about one of every three deaths in America.” The removal of trans fats could prevent as many as 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease annually, as estimated by the FDA.
What does this mean for you and your health?
While the Dance of Joy is highly encouraged, be aware that these changes, while meant to protect you the consumer, are not the end all be all. It has taken at least 40 years to establish enough evidence demonstrating detrimental effects caused by this substance, another 13 years to build policy around it and now three more years for that policy to be implemented. The real question is: What can you do right now to steer clear of this ingredient?
- Read nutrition labels – Zero does not mean zero. Companies are still allowed to label products with “0” grams of trans fats even if there is 0.5 grams. The best place to see if the food has partially hydrogenated oils is the ingredients, listed in order of most to least amounts. Learning more about nutrition labels and the lay of the land can also aid in making wiser choices.
- Make your own REAL food – The best way to avoid accidentally consuming PHOs is controlling what you put inside your mouth. Learn to cook, make meals from scratch using real food ingredients and avoid ingredients you are not familiar with.
- Use healthy oils and fats – Instead of artificial or processed oils, opt for natural oils like olive, coconut and macadamia that have been cold-pressed and are extra virgin.
- Be weary of “No Trans Fats” labels – Many large food companies have dedicated teams whose job it is to craft the right promotional message to increase sales. You can bet that more foods will be labeled “No Trans Fats,” but this does not mean it does not contain other harmful substances.