The Saga of Trans Fats
- 3 Minutes Read
Learn about the history of industrially produced trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) and the FDA's final ruling. These are the worst type of fats for cardiovascular health.
Trans fats have had their glory days in the food industry, but those days are coming to a close for our health's sake. Plant oils (canola, corn, soybean, etc.) are liquid at room temperature. When hydrogen is added to a vegetable oil, a trans fat is created which is more solid at room temperature. Using trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), results in quality taste, texture and shelf stability in foods like cookies, crackers and pastries. Mounting evidence against trans fat has been accumulating over the past decades. In June, 2015, the FDA made a final determination that artificial trans fats must be removed from processed foods. The food industry is now faced with the huge challenge to provide quality food products without PHOs.
Trans fats have had their glory days in the food industry, but those days are coming to a close for our health's sake. Plant oils (canola, corn, soybean, etc.) are liquid at room temperature. When hydrogen is added to a vegetable oil, a trans fat is created which is more solid at room temperature. Using trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), makes quality taste, texture and shelf stability in foods like cookies, crackers and pastries.
Hydrogenation was first discovered in the early 20th century, but the process of making PHOs was not perfected until the 1960s. At that time, scientific evidence was mounting against animal fats as the culprit for heart disease. As public health messages against saturated fats grew, food companies responded by moving away from using lard and tropical oils in foods and towards PHOs. This seemed like a reasonable, cost-effective alternative to make products that are shelf stable, with good texture and appearance, without the saturated fat. In fact, from the 1960s through the 1990s, virtually every processed food in the grocery store contained trans fat. Fryer oils using trans fats did not turn rancid as quickly so the fryer oil didn't need to be changed as often. During those years, however, the scientific study of trans fat was limited. The data was often contradictory with multiple studies showing no impact of trans fats on cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. (As a side note, scientific research was developing during this same time period. Present scientific research yields a higher quality of data with improved methods of study and more rigorous standards.)
In the 1990s, the view of trans fats started to change. Multiple studies showed the negative effect of partial hydrogenation on blood cholesterol levels. Then, in 2006, a meta-analysis study (research that looks carefully at results from multiple studies) found that a 2% increase in trans fat intake was associated with a 23% increase in the incidence of heart disease. Bam! Final nail on the coffin. In that same year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated that all packaged food labels indicate the quantity of trans fat in a serving of food. The caveat is that if a serving has less than .5 grams per serving, the label can say zero trans fat. The consumer should still look for "partially hydrogenated oil" in the ingredient list in order to avoid small amounts of trans fat. Also in 2006, the New York City Public Health Department banned PHOs from all restaurant foods in the city. Since then, many food companies have voluntarily begun to eliminate PHOs from their foods due to public demand.
In 2013, the FDA made a preliminary determination that PHOs are not "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) for use in processed foods. And in June, 2015, the FDA made a final determination that artificial trans fats must be removed from processed foods and gave food manufacturers a three-year grace period to reformulate food products without PHOs. It is important to note that there are natural trans fats that occur in small amounts in meat and dairy so it is impossible to completely eliminate trans fat from your diet unless you are a vegan. Data indicates, however, that over 80% of trans fat consumed in the US is from PHOs.
The food industry is now faced with the huge challenge to provide quality food products without PHOs. This is a big deal because the US consumer demands quality texture and taste, and wants foods to last a long time on the shelf or in the freezer. Food companies are reformulating their products to use a combination of saturated and unsaturated oils, and seed companies are developing new seed varietals that provide more stable unsaturated oils. But these changes take time, effort and money. For example, snack packaging needs to be changed to make the new product remain more shelf stable or a restaurant chain has to retrain staff about how often to change the fryer oil so it does not produce an off-tasting fried food. I see all of this as another excellent reason for all of us is to consider eating more fresh, less processed foods.