Written by Ron Jurecic
Another battle has been won in the battle against trans fats. The American Food and Drug Agency (FDA) has just issued a Federal Register notice where it states that partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) are no longer considered “generally recognized as safe (GRAS).” This determination is still preliminary, but, if finalized, PHO would come to be treated as food additives. This would in turn mean that they couldn’t be marketed without FDA approval, for which they would have to be free of trans fats. In short, this move by the FDA would effectively ban trans fats from food.
It is hardly news that trans fats are harmful. They have been proven to increase the levels of LDL (the ‘bad cholesterol’) and decrease the levels of HDL (‘good cholesterol’). This makes them doubly bad and by far the worst kind of fat for cardiovascular health. Eating trans fats dramatically increases the risk of heart disease; for example, one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that for every two percent of increase in trans fats in the diet, the risk of coronary heart disease roughly doubles. Another study published in the Nutrition in Clinical Practice journal estimated that in the United States alone, up to 100,000 deaths due to heart disease each year can be attributed to trans fats. Several other medical conditions have been linked to trans fats too, such as obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and major depressive disorder. Not in all these conditions is there a clear consensus about their role, but one thing seems certain: the consumption of trans fats should be kept to minimum.
Trans fats are present in food naturally, for instance in milk and beef fat. However, their amount in natural foodstuffs is small; the real problem lies with the PHO. These are semi-synthetic fats produced by treating vegetable oils with hydrogen gas in order to make them solid. Unfortunately, the same hydrogenation process that produces solid PHO from oils also produces trans fats, and that in large quantities. PHO can contain up to 45% of trans fat; baking shortenings typically contain about 30%, and margarines about 15%. In contrast, butter only contains about 4% of trans fat.
PHO are so widely used because they are very versatile; the level of hydrogenation can be adjusted to get the product with just the right characteristics. They are also cheap and chemically more stable, which means they have a longer shelf-life and can be re-used, for instance for frying. As a result, they can be found in a variety of foods such as pastries, snacks, fried foods, frozen foods and many others. After the discovery of hydrogenation more than a century ago, PHO quickly became popular also because they were considered healthier than many natural fats – until the ugly truth about trans fats began to emerge.
Until now, PHO were considered ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS), which meant that they could be used in food products without prior FDA approval. This was based on the fact that they had been used in food for decades without obvious harm. But evidence against trans fats began to slowly mount, and with it rose the consumer awareness of the problem. In 2003, Denmark became the first country to effectively ban trans fats in processed foods, and was eventually followed by several other European countries. In 2006, it became mandatory for the amount of trans fats to be stated on the Nutrition Facts label in the United States. Food industry eventually began to respond to these pressures by reformulating products to contain less trans fats or none at all. Many restaurants also followed suit.
Now, the FDA finally proposes to get rid of artificial trans fats (the proposal would not affect naturally-occurring ones), by removing the GRAS status from PHO. Although this is for now just a proposal, it is reasonable to believe it will eventually become effective. Trans fats already have such a bad reputation that it seems unlikely that anyone, even the powerful food industry, would dare prevent the ban. The debate could go more in the direction of how long the transitional period might be. Of course, even once the ban is in place, we will need to stay vigilant: trans fats will have to be replaced with something else – although it is hard to imagine them being replaced with something as bad or even worse.
If the ban is effected, this will represent a truly tectonic shift in the diet of millions of Americans, the effects of which might take decades to be fully seen. And it comes none too early; hard evidence against trans fats has been out there for a decades now, and the United States is lagging ten years behind the most progressive countries when it comes to this issue. Still, the FDA deserves praise for acting boldly and justifying its reputation as a safeguard of the nation’s health. We can only hope more similar moves will follow soon.
FDA Notice: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/11/08/2013-26854/tentative-determination-regarding-partially-hydrogenated-oils-request-for-comments-and-for
Source: Living Healthy:360 — http://www.livinghealthy360.com/index.php/fda-proposes-to-ban-trans-fats-114092/
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