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Articles September 2015 Issue

What Does the Trans Fat Ban Mean to You?

To protect your heart health, you’ll need to keep checking labels until mid-2018.

Image © Thinkstock

Artificial trans fats, in the form of partially hydrogenated oils, once hailed as a healthy alternative to butter and shortening, will all but disappear from the US food supply by June 2018. Following up on a preliminary 2013 ruling, the US Food and Drug Administration announced this summer that artificial trans fats would no longer be considered “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) The agency gave the food industry three years to reformulate products without artificial trans fats or to petition for specific, limited uses, such as in “sprinkles” atop ice cream.

The presence of artificial trans fats in the food supply has dropped by about 80% since 2003, when the FDA announced it would begin requiring levels to be disclosed on Nutrition Facts panels by 2006. The latest FDA move, effectively a ban, follows a long accumulation of scientific evidence that trans fats contribute to heart disease. In 2002, the Institute of Medicine determined that there is “no safe level of trans fatty acids and people should eat as little of them as possible.”

Trans fat increases LDL (bad) cholesterol and unlike saturated fat does not increase HDL (good) cholesterol,” explains Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory and executive editor of the Health & Nutrition Letter. “It is best to limit intake of trans fat as much as possible. The other major source of trans fat in the diet is that naturally occurring in milk and meat fat. By choosing low- and nonfat dairy products and lean meat you get a double benefit, reducing both trans fat and saturated fat.”

What does this dramatic regulatory change mean to you and the foods you buy? Here are some answers.

Q: What are trans fats?

A: From the Latin for “across,” trans fats have an unusual type of chemical structure that, in artificial trans fats, is commercially created by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils. The process of “partially hydrogenating” these otherwise healthy polyunsaturated fats makes them solid at room temperature and increases their shelf life. (“Fully” or “completely” hydrogenated oils do not contain trans fats.)

Q: What foods still use artificial trans fats?

A: Although food manufacturers began shifting away from partially hydrogenated oils after the FDA required labeling, these products continue to be used in some cake frostings, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas and other entrées, baked goods, fried foods, coffee creamers and even chewing gum. Some restaurants still use them for frying and baking, although that depends on city and state ordinances.

Q: How much artificial trans fats do most Americans eat?

A: It is difficult to get accurate numbers because food formulations are constantly changing, primarily in the direction of decreasing artificial trans fat. It has been estimated the average daily consumption was about 1 gram in 2012, according to the FDA, down from 4.6 grams in 2003. Given different dietary patterns it is likely some people had lower intakes and some higher intakes.

Image © Thinkstock

Q: Until 2018, how can I be sure foods I buy are free of artificial trans fats?

A: Just because the label says zero trans fats doesn’t mean a product contains absolutely none. The 2003 FDA rule allows foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fats to be labeled as zero. Though this is a tiny amount, over time it could add up. Check the ingredients list for terms such as “partially hydrogenated.”

Q: How will partially hydrogenated oil use change under the new rule?

A: With artificial trans fats no longer considered safe, after June 2018 none can be used to prepare food—including restaurant uses—without a waiver from the FDA. The food industry is expected to seek exceptions for uses as “processing aids” in recipes in which only trace amounts of artificial trans fats remain in the finished product and as emulsifiers in products such as chewing gum that are not swallowed.

Q: Who has already banned partially hydrogenated oils?

A: Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland have effectively banned partially hydrogenated fats. Several US cities, including New York City, Boston and Philadelphia, enacted bans on partially hydrogenated fats in restaurants and bakeries, as has California. Leading restaurant chains that have eliminated partially hydrogenated oils include McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Chick-Fil-A, Starbucks, Long John Silvers and Dunkin’ Donuts. WalMart has ordered its food suppliers to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils by this year.

Q: What difference will this ban make to health?

A: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the remaining partially hydrogenated oils in the US food supply contribute to 3,000-7,000 premature deaths and 10,000-20,000 heart attacks each year. According to the FDA, the change will save more than $130 billion in medical expenses over the next 20 years.

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