One of the singularly unhealthy but tasty ingredients in the American diet is trans fat, also known as partially hydrogenated oil (PHO). Except for the small amounts of trans fat that naturally occur in certain meats and dairy products, trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to a vegetable oil, and have been implicated in causing cumulative damage to arteries, specifically leading to serious heart disease over time and even death. In fact, statistics show that 7000 deaths annually could be prevented if trans fats were removed from the American food scene. But wait – weren’t these fats already banned from consumer goods? Not exactly.
Until now, the most recent food rules that had been established by the FDA and accepted by many food manufacturers and restaurants, was voluntary removal of trans fats. Because of consumer interest in healthier foods, many companies were motivated to remove PHOs from their products…..except there was a very confusing caveat. Until now, companies could label a food trans fat free, as long as it had 0.5 mgs of trans fat or less, per serving. If you do the math, that means that technically you could eat a variety of processed foods, whose labels all suggest zero presence of trans fats, and accumulate doses of a half a gram of trans fat per serving, during meals and snacks. By day’s end you could have consumed several grams of this artery-clogging, heart-disease provoking fat. More worrisome is the fact that your kids could already have significant amounts of tenacious artery-clogging plaque in their bodies, setting them up for early heart disease and its complications. PHOs have also been implicated as possible contributors to diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Many health and food experts have frankly been stymied by this approach to limiting trans fats.
On November 7, 2013, news broke that the FDA has preliminarily classified PHOs as “generally not recognized as safe” for use in food and would now classify these fats as a “food additive,” requiring authorization before use. The agency has invoked a 60 day comment period to allow for further data to be collected and for a determination to be made with regards to the time interval that food manufacturers would need to reformulate foods with trans fat, should the full ban be formally passed. The FDA Commissioner acknowledges the decline of consumption of PHOs over the past 10 years, but reaffirms concern about any presence of this dangerous oil in processed foods. The data suggests that if it were completely eradicated from the food supply, 20,000 heart attacks per year and 7,000 cardiac deaths could be prevented. The IOM (Institute of Medicine) position statement suggests that trans fat provides no health benefits and there is no safe level of consumption.
Currently PHOs can be found in certain processed desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarines, coffee creamers, crackers, cookies and frozen dough. And thanks to reformulating foods and creative innovation, many manufacturers already showcase fully trans free versions of some of these foods. Whole Foods supermarkets has banned all foods with even miniscule amounts of trans fats from their shelves. Most restaurants have also swapped out PHOs with other healthier oils, though Carl’s Jr, Hardees and Popeyes still have a fair number of menu items that still contain this fat. Industry experts have indicated that a good replacement for PHOs is high oleic soybean oil that undergoes certain modifications. CSPI, a consumer advocacy group and other health experts have strongly suggested that a protracted and lengthy phase out of PHOs is not an acceptable solution. Supported by the American Heart Association and established health exprts, CSPI recommends swift and complete removal of PHOs.
What should you do right now as the discussion about a complete trans fat ban continues? Until the FDA makes a final determination, consumers should read labels carefully to identify hidden trans fats, and aim for zero trans fats in their diets. This is one food ingredient that demands zero tolerance!
Amy Hendel is a Physician Assistant and Health Coach, journalist and host of Food Rescue, Simple Smoothies and What’s for Lunch? Author of Fat Families, Thin Families and The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, she tweets health headlines daily @HealthGal1103. Catch her guest appearances on local and national news and talk shows, and check out her website. Follow her blogs at: http://www.healthcentral.com/profiles/c/86903
Published On: November 07, 2013