You know those guilty pleasures you love, like bags of chocolate chip cookies, frozen pizzas and canned cinnamon rolls? Some of them will get a little healthier soon, thanks to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s move to remove artificial trans fats from processed foods.
The FDA ruled that partially hydrogenateda oils the major dietary source of industrially produced trans fat are no longer “generally recognized as safe.” That decision was based on increasing scientific evidence and expert testimony that trans fats can increase the “bad” low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and reduce the “good” high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. This raises risk for coronary heart disease and heart attacks.
The FDA estimates that removing artificial trans fats from the nation’s food supply could prevent as many as 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year, according to a HealthDay news article. The FDA will allow the food industry three years to June 18, 2018”to phase out partially hydrogenated oils or seek special FDA approval for use of the oils as a food additive.
Artificial trans fat will have to disappear from the American diet, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA on Tuesday ruled that trans fat is not “generally recognized as safe” for use in human food. The department gave food manufacturers three years to remove the partially hydrogenated oils, or PHOs, from their products. The companies can petition the FDA for a special permit to use it, but no PHOs can be added to human food unless otherwise approved by the FDA.
Eating a diet rich in trans fat is linked to higher body weight, heart disease and memory loss. It has been shown to raise the “bad,” or LDL, cholesterol in the blood, which can lead to cardiovascular disease the leading cause of death in the United States.
“The FDA’s action on this major source of artificial trans fat demonstrates the agency’s commitment to the heart health of all Americans,” said Dr. Stephen Ostroff, the agency’s acting commissioner, in a news release. “This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”
In 2013, the FDA had made a tentative determination that trans fats were no longer safe. After years of public comment and scientific review, this is the final step in the process. Manufacturers have had to list trans fat content on their labels since 2006, and there has been a significant decrease in the amount of trans fat in American foods.
The FDA estimates trans fat consumption declined about 78% between 2003 and 2012 after the labeling went into effect. That’s when many companies reduced trans fat content from their products, or at least some of it. The law still allowed companies to list products as “trans fat free” even if they had 0.5 grams of fat. That should change with the current ruling.
Partially hydrogenated oils have been widely used in processed foods since the 1950s. They are created by pumping hydrogen into vegetable oil to make it more solid. They improve the texture, shelf life and long-term flavor of processed foods, according to the FDA.
- Crackers, cookies, cakes, frozen pies and other baked goods
- Snack foods (such as some microwave popcorn)
- Stick margarines and some spreads
- Vegetable shortenings
- Non-dairy coffee creamers
- Refrigerated dough products (such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls)
- Frozen pizzas
- Ready-to-use frostings
In 2006, the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat on nutrition labels. With pressure from the FDA and an increasing consumer awareness of healthy eating, many companies voluntarily changed the way they processed foods. They stopped using partially hydrogenated oils, thus reducing or eliminating the trans fat in their products.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association reports that producers have lowered the amounts of partially hydrogenated oils in food products by 86 percent since 2003.
After the three-year transition period, partially hydrogenated oils will be gone from processed foods (except by special permission), but trans fat won’t be completely eliminated from food, notes Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Trans fats occur naturally in meat and dairy products and are found at low levels in other edible oils, where they are unavoidably produced during the manufacturing process.
In the meantime, Mayne encourages consumers to read labels carefully. Even if a food package claims to have “0 grams of trans fat,” it’s a good idea to read the ingredient list. Under current regulations, companies can claim to have no trans fat if the food contains less than 0.5 grams. The FDA recommends consumers read the ingredient list to see if a produce contains partially hydrogenated oil and avoid it when possible. Even small amounts can add up.
“This is going to be a huge public health victory,” Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told HealthDay. “It’s time to get trans fats out of the food supply.
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In 2007, New York City adopted a regulation that banned trans fat from restaurants, but some restaurants were already ahead of the legal changes. Companies like McDonald’s had stopped cooking their french fries in trans fat more than a decade ago. Their online menus say all their fried food is free of trans fat. Chick-fil-A removed all artificial trans fat from its menu in 2008.
Before it became a popular ingredient in processed and fast foods, trans fat was introduced into the American diet as early as 1911 in the form of shortening or hydrogenated vegetable oil, used for cooking and making pies. Partially hydrogenated oil is formed when hydrogen is added to liquid oils to make solid fats, like shortening and margarine. It also increases the shelf life of food and enhances flavors.
American dietary guidelines recommended Americans keep their trans fat consumption “as low as possible.”,Dr. Steven Nissen, the chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, praised the FDA for its “bold courage” and said it “deserves a lot of credit” for taking this “enormously important” move. “In many ways, trans fat is a real tragic story for the American diet,” Nissen said.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, we mistakenly told Americans that butter and eggs were bad for them and pushed people to margarine, which is basically trans fat. What we’ve learned now is that saturated fat is relatively neutral it is the trans fat that is really harmful and we had made the dietary situation worse.”
What is trans fat, and where do you find it?
Major sources of artificial trans fat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include frozen pizzas, cake, cookies, pie, margarine and spreads, ready-made frosting, coffee creamers, fried foods, and savory snacks (such as microwave popcorn). Trans fat are also used in restaurant cooking, particularly in baking and frying.
While trans fat can occur naturally at very low levels in some meat and dairy products, researchers worry about artificial trans fat. These are made when oil goes through a processed called hydrogenation, which involves adding hydrogen to liquid oil to make it more solid.
Artificial trans fats have been around for more than a century, but they’ve risen in popularity since the 1950s because they’re relatively inexpensive compared with solid animal fats, they increase the shelf life of food, they taste good, and at a time when other saturated fats like butter were vilified they were billed as a healthy alternative. (Think margarine or vegetable shortening.)
Now the policy is moving to reflect findings that they’re not as safe as was once suspected. During the three-year compliance period, food companies will need to either reformulate their products without trans fats or get permission from the FDA to use them for specific reasons.
Why the policy change came decades after researchers sounded the alarm
The new FDA policy lags the science by decades. Researchers first began sounding the alarm about the potential harms of trans fat in the 1950s. The evidence that trans fat consumption increased bad (LDL) cholesterol in the blood and decreased the amount of good (HDL) cholesterol raising the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks has been mounting since the 1970s.
According to Kenneth Oye, a professor of political science at MIT, the FDA has actually been remarkably slow to respond to the science. “It’s not a trivial case because of the numbers of unnecessary deaths related to trans fat consumption,” he said. He partly attributes this lag to attempts by food manufacturers to block and obscure the science.
Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, began his research on trans fat after reading about its effects on pig arteries. In a study of more than 100,000 women, he started tracking trans fat consumption and its link with hard outcomes like coronary heart disease and death.
“After eight years, we saw a striking increase of heart disease risk [in the group that ate the most trans fat],” he told Vox. Those findings were published in The Lancet in 1993, but, he added, he had a hard time getting his research out. “There was a lot of resistance to idea that trans fat might be a problem because of the recommendations from the American Heart Association and other groups telling people to eat a lot of margarine and Crisco, which is high in trans fat,” he said. “It was hard to swallow that trans fat could be worse than lard and butter.”
So, according to Willett, part of the lag time between science and policy had to do with the scientific community’s unwillingness to accept new evidence that defied common thinking at the time. “Many people had based their whole careers on a campaign against saturated fat,” he added.
Following Willett’s research, others have come to the same conclusion, which caused the FDA to introduce its labeling requirement in 2006. By 2012, about 75 percent of the trans fat had been removed from the food supply.
What the trans fat change means for you
Americans still consume an average of 1.3 grams (or 0.6 percent of energy intake) from artificial trans fat each day, according to the CDC, so today’s clampdown by the FDA is expected to prevent more premature deaths.
“Further reducing trans fat consumption by avoiding artificial trans fat could prevent 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 coronary heart disease deaths each year in the US,” the CDC said.
If people don’t eat processed foods, they probably aren’t eating many artificial trans fats. “But that doesn’t apply to very many people,” said Willett. “And if you went to a restaurant, the fats used in baking and frying were high in trans fats.”
He added: “When fully enacted in three years, we’ll be able to not worry about trans fat. And that’s good because there are lots of other things we need to be dealing with [in] our food supply: too much salt, too much sugar, too much red meat, not enough fruits, vegetables, and fiber. It’s good to have something solved.”
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