Posted by Eliza Leone
On November 7, 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced an initial determination that trans fat and partially hydrogenated oils are no longer “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). What does all of this mean? Let’s take a step back.
Trans fat can occur in two forms: artificial or natural. Artificial trans fat is added to processed foods as partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which have been used since the 1950s to help improve the shelf-life, texture, and maintain the flavor of processed foods. Naturally-occurring trans fat can appear in dairy products and certain meats, but the FDA is concerned about the artificial trans fat containing partially hydrogenated oils. Until recently, the FDA has referred to partially hydrogenated oils as generally recognized as safe , meaning partially hydrogenated oils have been scientifically proven to be safe to eat. Current research has shown, however, that partially hydrogenated oils are not as safe as we have previously believed.
In 2006, the FDA began to require trans fat be included on nutrition facts labels. This ruling caused many food manufacturers to take trans fat out of their foods altogether. However, there is an unfortunate labeling loophole: labels can say a food has zero grams of trans fat if there is less than half a gram per serving. Why is it such a big deal to have less than half a gram of trans fat? Trans fat can add up quickly by eating multiple servings of a food or multiple foods per day with trans fat. Some food products still containing artificial trans fat include baked goods, some snack foods and frozen foods, stick margarines, and vegetable shortenings. The only way to get around the loophole is to read the ingredients list: if the ingredients include the phrase “partially hydrogenated,” then the food contains trans fat.
The US Dietary Guidelines suggest that Americans avoid all trans fat. Any intake of artificial trans fat increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Trans fat can also increase LDL (bad) cholesterol, decrease HDL (good) cholesterol, and it may increase insulin resistance and risk of diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate the prevention of 7,000 deaths from heart disease and 20,000 from heart attacks each year by eating less trans fat.
If you’ve heard enough already and want to jump onto the banning bandwagon, here’s what you need to know. The FDA will be making a final decision about whether or not partially hydrogenated oils are still GRAS. If the FDA decides that partially hydrogenated oils are unsafe, all products containing partially hydrogenated oils will need to receive premarket approval from the FDA or the sale of these products will be illegal. Once the decision is made, it would take about a year to completely remove partially hydrogenated oils from all food products. Since so many food manufacturers removed added trans fats back in 2006, consumers would likely not notice any difference in price, taste, or shelf-life. While the FDA is forming a final decision, the public is being asked to provide any information on partially hydrogenated oils being unsafe, PHO use in foods, and any ideas for removing partially hydrogenated oils from the food supply. Send a standard informative message to the FDA or to create your own. The comment period is open until January 7, 2014.
In the meantime, it is best to avoid all trans fat, when possible, by reading the ingredients list. If the list includes the phrase “partially hydrogenated,” put the food back on the shelf and choose another without any partially hydrogenated oils.
Eliza Leone is an intern with JF&CS Nutrition Services as a part of the required experience to become a registered dietitian. Eliza has a bachelor of science in nutrition and dietetics from the University of New Haven and a master of science in nutrition from Boston University. She has been working and volunteering within the nutrition field for five years. Eliza also works part-time at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown and St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Brighton.