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Harvard Health Blog
The long goodbye: FDA ruling will eliminate trans fats from U.S. foods
- By Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health
Partially hydrogenated oils, once a workhorse of the food industry, have gotten an official heave-ho from the U.S. food supply.
In a long-awaited decision, the FDA ruled yesterday that partially hydrogenated oils, which are the main source of harmful trans fats, are no longer “generally recognized as safe.” That means any food company wanting to use partially hydrogenated oils must get the FDA’s approval to do so. Companies have until 2018 to stop using partially hydrogenated oils or to petition the FDA for approval.
The move is a good one for individual and public health. Trans fats have been a favorite of the food industry because they increase the shelf life of liquid oils and make margarine easier to spread. But those benefits have a big cost. Trans fats boost the amount of low-density lipoprotein (“bad” cholesterol) in the bloodstream and lower the amount of high-density lipoprotein (“good” cholesterol). They make blood more likely to clot inside blood vessels in the heart, brain, and elsewhere, and also ramp up inflammation, which plays important roles in the development of heart disease, diabetes, and other leading causes of death and disability.
“This double, triple, or even quadruple whammy from trans fats should translate into higher rates of heart disease,” Dr. Walter C. Willett, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and I write in Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating. And it does. In a review article published nearly 10 years ago in The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Willett and his colleagues estimated that removing trans fats from the U.S. food supply would prevent between 72,000 and 228,000 heart attacks each year.
The FDA finally agrees. In the blog FDAVoice, Susan Mayne, the director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, wrote that “it has become clear that what’s good for extending shelf-life is not equally good for extending human life.”
The long goodbye
Artificial trans fats were developed in the early 1900s by Wilhelm Normann, a German chemist. He patented a process that used hydrogen gas to turn liquid vegetable oils into solids. This process, called hydrogenation, protected the oil from turning rancid. It also added trans fats.
Proctor and Gamble released Crisco, the first partially hydrogenated shortening, in 1911. Soft margarines followed. Over the years, the food industry found hundreds of uses for partially hydrogenated oils, from prepared cookies and pastries to powdered creamer and the oils used for deep frying in fast-food restaurants.
Trans fats have been called “stealth fats” because few Americans knew they were in the food supply. Food companies weren’t required to list them on Nutrition Facts labels, and they didn’t show up as “trans fats” in ingredients lists. The only way a shopper could have known a food contained trans fats was to spot the term “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients list.
Aware of the potential health hazards of trans fats, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA in 1994 to require that trans fats be listed on Nutrition Facts labels. It took 12 years for that to happen.
In 2004, Fred A. Kummerow filed a citizen petition with the FDA to remove partially hydrogenated oils from the list of foods classified as “generally recognized as safe” (or GRAS). As described in The New York Times, Kummerow, now professor emeritus of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois, waged a life-long battle against trans fats. It took nine years, but the FDA eventually announced a preliminary determination to strike partially hydrogenated oils from the GRAS list in 2013. Yesterday’s decision made it final.
The move will definitely help reduce the amount of trans fats in the American diet. But many food makers, seeing the handwriting on the wall, have already been working to find trans-fat-free alternatives to partially hydrogenated oils. Chains like Starbucks did away with trans fats in 2007 and others are following suit. Walmart is requiring its suppliers to deliver trans-free products by the end of this year.
Keep in mind that 2018 is three years away. So it makes sense to keeping checking food labels for trans fats. Your heart will thank you for it.
About the Author
Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health
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