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The FDA wants to ban trans fats.

November 22, 2013

On November 7, 2013 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would like to ban trans fats in food.

So what is Trans Fat?

Trans fat is short for trans fatty acids. They are unsaturated fats that are made to mimic saturated fatty acids (saturated fat) by adding hydrogen to some of its bonds. Trans fatty acids are made by a process called hydrogenation and the final product is called partially hydrogenated oil.

Why is there concern about Trans Fats?

Trans fats were first used in foods in the 1930s. They were initially thought to be safer than saturated animal fats and replaced saturated fats in many food products. Since that time, research has shown that trans fats are actually more harmful than saturated fats.

Artificially-made trans fats have been shown to increase the amount of low density lipoprotein (LDL-cholesterol) and decrease the amount of high density lipoprotein (HDL-cholesterol) in the blood. This increase in “bad’ cholesterol and decrease in “good” cholesterol contributes to heart disease and death due to heart attacks.

There is also suspicion that beyond its effect on cholesterol, trans fats may have other negative health effects, but these have not been fully clarified. Based on these characteristics, in 2002, the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences recommended that trans fat intake be kept as low as possible. Additionally, they stated that trans fats provide no benefit to human health.  

What foods have Trans Fat in them?

There are some foods that contain natural trans fats such as dairy products and meat from cows, sheep and goats. These natural trans fats may behave differently in the body from artificially produced trans fat or partially hydrogenated oil.

Foods that contain partially hydrogenated oil include stick margarine, ready-to-use frosting, cookies, baked goods, microwave popcorn, refrigerated biscuits, frozen pizza, frozen pies, shortening, and even many coffee creamers.

In 2006, the FDA required that all trans fats be included on the Nutrition Facts Panel, but this law allows products with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to be labeled as containing 0 grams of trans fat.  Foods that contain more than 0 grams of trans fat, but less than 0.5 grams can only be identified by looking for the term “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients list.

How will the ban on Trans Fat change things?

The proposal submitted by the FDA is to change the GRAS status of partially hydrogenated oil.  GRAS means “generally recognized as safe.” Foods categorized as GRAS are recognized to be not harmful for intake under the conditions of intended use. Taking all partially hydrogenated oils off the GRAS list, will mean that food manufacturers will not be allowed to use them without prior approval by the FDA.

Currently, this proposal is in a 60-day waiting period to allow manufacturers and others to present evidence about this matter. After the 60-day period, the FDA will finalize their proposal and give the timeline that manufacturers will have to make the change. If the proposal goes through, manufacturers will have to reformulate all products that contain partially hydrogenated oils.

The FDA has estimated that getting rid of partially hydrogenated oils from our foods may prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 heart-related deaths a year.

How does this affect our children?

If the ban of partially hydrogenated oils goes into effect, the diets of our children will become healthier. There hasn’t been a lot of direct research on trans fat intake in children specifically, but we know trans fats increases the risk of heart disease in adults, and that children’s diet can influence their risk of developing heart disease. Therefore, high trans fat intake increases the risk that a child will develop heart disease later in life. The ban will be especially helpful for children who already have a higher risk of developing heart disease including obese and overweight children, those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, exposure to second hand smoke, chronic kidney disease, type 1 or type 2 diabetes, and a family history of heart disease in an immediate relative.

What can we do until this ban goes into effect?

Keep reading labels. If foods have 0 grams of trans fats listed per serving then read the list of ingredients to see if they contain partially hydrogenated oils. Avoid foods that have partially hydrogenated oils listed in the ingredients – even if it less than 0.5 grams per serving. No amount of artificial trans fats intake is beneficial to our health or the health of our children.