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The Ban on Trans Fats

In case you missed it, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that trans fats are no longer “generally recognized as safe” (“GRAS”) for use in food. They government agency has given food manufacturers three years to remove all trans fats from their products. This is good news for the American public and our general health.

What are trans fats?

While some trans fats occur in animal foods naturally, most trans fats in our diets come from a process called hydrogenation. This process takes liquid fats (like oil) and makes them more solid (like shortening), which makes them more stable over time. This can mean that the fat won’t go rancid while sitting on the shelf for awhile, or it can mean that the product made with the trans fat has a more pleasing texture of taste.

Currently, trans fats are found in things like margarine and shortening, many baked goods and pastries, some crackers and snack foods, microwave popcorn, and some fried foods.

Back in 2006, the FDA made trans fats a mandatory item on the food label. Since then, the amount of trans fats in our food supply have decreased. But the loophole in this regulation is that if a product has less than 0.5g of trans fats per serving, it can be labeled as 0g, or trans fat free. Not a big deal if you eat one serving of one of these items. But if you regularly eat these foods, or you consume them in larger quantities, it wouldn’t be hard to exceed the 2g recommended limit on trans fats per day.

Why are trans fats bad?

First of all, I tend to raise an eyebrow on things that have been modified in a lab. Not all of them are bad, but I try to stop and look carefully at what’s going on. Researchers have linked the consumption of trans fats to obesity, memory loss and coronary (heart) disease. Research has shown the double whammy when it comes to heart health – trans fats increase our LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower our HDL (“good”) cholesterol. This means an increase in a risk for blood clots, which can lead to heart attacks or strokes.

Modest recommendations have been to limit trans fats to 2g per day.  However, the Institute of Medicine (a public health non-profit group) has said that artificial trans fats are not safe to eat in any quantity.

Are there naturally occurring trans fats?

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Yes, there are naturally occurring trans fats in some meat and dairy products. This is because some grassfed animals actually produce trans fats in their guts. So small quantities will show up in the meat or milk or these animals. They’re called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and you don’t need to avoid these. In fact, these trans fats are actually good for reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer. Confusing, I know. The FDA is not concerned with removing these trans fats, only the man-made ones.

Is this the government overstepping its bounds?

Some people and organizations have expressed concern over this ruling of the FDA, saying that the FDA has switched from being a protector of the nation’s food supply to trying to push certain dietary lifestyles. There is some fear that the FDA is going to try to go after other unhealthy additives like salt and sugar.

I can understand that most people don’t want the government telling them what to eat. But I think that trans fats are totally different from salt and sugar. Trans fats are manufactured. Think about trans fats more like aspartame. They are both substances that are created in a laboratory. If the FDA had told food manufacturers that they had to eliminate saturated fats, that would be another issue, and that is a better comparison to the salt and sugar example.

The ruling to eliminate trans fats truly is a ruling to eliminate a food additive – which I believe is well under the FDA’s purview.

Eliminating trans fats in real life

How will this impact food products that currently contain trans fats? Overall, it should make them healthier, and you most likely won’t notice any difference. Sure, the manufacturers will have to replace the trans fats with something else – other fats or emulsifiers to keep the taste and texture consistent – but fat itself isn’t the issue.

I’m thrilled to see this change in the nation’s food supply, and believe it is a great step in the right direction. But quite frankly, the products that currently have trans fats in them are foods that I’d encourage people to stay away from, anyway. Or at least consider them “treat” foods, and not foods that you have on a regular basis!  So I can’t say that it will have a major impact on my recommendations :)

What do you think of the FDA's ruling?