The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that it will require the food industry to gradually phase out all trans fats because of the serious negative health effects they have on Americans.
"Trans fat" has been a buzz phrase for decades and for all the wrong reasons. You've seen them even if you didn't know it, in an estimated 40 percent of products on the shelves, in baked goods like donuts and muffins, French fries and frozen foods. There is also a small amount of trans fats that naturally occurs in foods like meat and cheese, but the manmade version of trans fat is what the FDA is no longer identifying as GRAS (generally recognized as safe).
So, what exactly is a trans fat? Trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils created by chemists. Basically, a hydrogen atom is added to oil to make it more solid at room temperature and less likely to spoil. This keeps the food fresher longer and also allows deep fryers in restaurants to reuse the same oil over and over. Doesn't that sound lovely? Although many fast food chains have stopped using trans fats and states across the country have passed bills to ban their use in restaurants, they still remain in many food products. Trans fats are an unhealthy shortcut that need to go.
Trans Fats, You and Your Health
Believe it or not, trans fats were once thought to be healthy. During the fat phobia of the '90s, the margarine product that resulted from hydrogenated oils was touted as a healthier substitute for butter. But research quickly found that trans fats were worse for us than saturated fats, causing our bad cholesterol (LDL) to increase and good cholesterol (HDL) to decrease. Not only is trans fat linked to higher incidence of heart disease and stroke, but also to a greater risk of diabetes.
The potential banning of trans fats from all of the U.S. food supply is positive for you as a consumer. Currently, foods can claim to be trans fat-free even if the product contains 0.5 grams or less, an amount that can cause you to exceed the recommended limit for health according to the American Heart Association (2 grams per day on a 2,000-calorie diet) without you realizing. Therefore with a ban, you won't need to look at the ingredient list for the phrase "partially hydrogenated oils" to identify trans fat in the food.
In addition to direct health concerns, there can be a long term effect on healthcare costs. The CDC estimates that cutting out trans fats could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year. Saved healthcare costs translate into a positive impact on our economy. So if you personally already avoid trans fat, this ban can potentially impact you with regards to financial health.
Many argue that people should have a choice in what they consume without needing a government mandate. While there is merit to that point of view, education in this nation can only go so far to help people lead healthier lifestyles. There are economic factors that prevent many from even having a choice. This is a positive step by the government to improve the quality of our food.
Before the FDA takes the next step, they will allow a 60-day review period for comments from manufacturers as to how long it will take to reformulate their products and even make their case for keeping trans fats in the products.
A Trans Fat-Free World
Our food supply is wrought with artificial ingredients that have either been proven to be detrimental to our health, or their health impact is unclear. While trans fat may be one less to worry about, food manufacturers will need to test substitutes that fit the bill when it comes to shelf-life and stability. Then, those products may be tested by the medical community for health impact.
But forget about health for a minute. What about the taste? Will trans fat-free products taste worse and what will manufacturers use as a substitute? Many fast food chains already have made the switch without customer backlash. Dunkin' Donuts, for example, reformulated trans fat-free donuts in 2007 by using a blend of non-hydrogenated oils and sold millions without anyone noticing. Of course, that doesn't give you free reign to go out for a donut everyday either.
When talking about fat (and any food) in general, the less processed the food, the better for your health. On food labels, look for items containing five ingredients or less. Get back to the roots in the kitchen by using vegetable oils and butter (yes, I said butter). While butter contains saturated fat that has also been in the spotlight as a culprit for heart disease, some research shows it may not be as bad as previously thought. The bottom line to remember in light of this potential trans fat ban is that not only one ingredient, or lack thereof, does a healthy diet make.