The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced steps that would ban trans fat, the unhealthy preservative in processed foods such as chips, crackers and microwave popcorn, effectively ridding it from the American food supply.
Eliminating the ingredient, added to extend a product’s shelf life but packing the worst fat for heart health, is expected to prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths, the FDA said on its website. Heart disease is the country’s No. 1 cause of death.
“While consumption of potentially harmful artificial trans fat has declined over the last two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “The FDA’s action is an importantstep toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat. Further reduction in the amount of trans fat in the American diet could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year — a critical step in the protection of Americans’ health.”
Linked to hardening of the arteries, trans fat is often found in manufactured foods that are salty, sweet and fatty –- and most addictive, according to Dr. Pamela Peeke, fitness expert, physician and senior science advisor for Promises Behavioral Health who works with food addiction patients.
“Trans fats are manufactured by man, not found in nature, versus olive oil, for instance, which is a good and healthy fat, and they jack up your cholesterol, increasing heart disease,” Dr. Peeke said. “Trans fats have to be gone from everything, so I applaud the FDA.”
Under action the FDA proposed Nov. 7, partially hydrogenated oil, the source of artery-choking trans fats, would be reclassified as food not “generally recognized as safe,” Hamburg told reporters. That re-labeling is a legal move that would require an applicant to scientifically prove its use of trans fats was safe, a steep barrier given that scientific literature overwhelmingly shows the contrary, the New York Times reported. The Institute of Medicine, the FDA noted, found “there is no safe level for consumption” of artificial trans fats. (A very limited amount may occur in meat and dairy items).
“That will make it a challenge, to be honest,” Michael R. Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, told reporters.
A Brief History of Artificial Trans Fats
The FDA’s proposals are open for 60 days for additional data to be offered and for comment by the public and food manufacturers that may be considered before a final action. Companies can report how long it will take them to reformulate their products.
So in what products are trans fats found? An array of preservative-laden foods ranging from baked goods, crackers and cookies to frozen pizza and dough, microwave popcorn, margarine and coffee creamers, which Dr. Peeke dubbed “science fair projects.”
Many restaurant and food chains have voluntarily dropped trans fats from their menus in recent years, a move the FDA praised: “Thanks to these efforts, along with public education, the consumption of trans fat in American diets has been significantly reduced. Since trans fat content information began appearing in the Nutrition Facts label of foods in 2006, trans fat intake among American consumers has declined from 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to about 1 gram per day in 2012.”
McDonald’s, for example, stopped cooking its french fries in trans fat years ago. The company’s website says all its fried menu items are free of trans fat.
With cardiovascular disease the No. 1 killer in the U.S., claiming 831,000 lives every year — or one-third of all deaths — purging trans fats is ideal, public health officials believe.
The American Heart Association applauded the FDA’s move, calling it a “tremendous step forward in the fight against heart disease,” adding in a statement that the group “has long advocated for eliminating trans fat from the nation’s food supply.”
Partially-hydrogenated oils, or PHOs, are the result of taking liquid oil and treating it with hydrogen gas to make it solid, and were a cheaper deep frying alternative to animal fat such as butter. But public health advocates have been trying to banish them for decades once they were linked to heart disease, which can be caused by high cholesterol and hardening of the arteries. They’re considered far worse than even saturated fats, which also contribute to heart disease.
Once the FDA required food labels to include trans fats, consumers — and food makers — changed their habits, and some experts argue that their absence has barely been noticed.
“You can’t taste the difference at all, not at all,” Peeke said. “Trans fats usually come with other fat, so you still get that flavor, you just are removing the really bad part.”