Trans Fat -- On the Way Out

At long last, the Food and Drug Administration has announced its preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oil is no longer "generally recognized as safe" for use in food.
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At long last, the Food and Drug Administration has announced its preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oil is no longer "generally recognized as safe" for use in food.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has been trying to reduce or eliminate the use of partially hydrogenated oil -- the source of artificial trans fat -- for 20 years. Beginning in 1993, we pushed for trans fat labeling on Nutrition Facts labels, published studies on the trans-fat content of foods, sued fast-food restaurant chains, pushed for local and state prohibitions on the use of partially hydrogenated oil by restaurants and bakeries, and in 2004 we asked the Food and Drug Administration to revoke its approval for partially hydrogenated oil altogether.

Artificial trans fat is a powerful promoter of heart disease -- Harvard epidemiologists estimated that a decade or so ago artificial trans fat was causing upwards of 50,000 premature deaths per year -- so the FDA's announcement is a historic step to protect consumers and a big win for public health. Like saturated fat, trans fat increases levels of LDL, the "bad" cholesterol that promotes heart disease. But unlike saturated fat, trans fat also lowers HDL, the "good" cholesterol that is associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

This unsafe and unnecessary ingredient is already on its way out. CSPI's successful campaign to require trans fat to be listed on Nutrition Facts labels in 2006 resulted in a wave of product reformulations across the food industry. Many food manufacturers made the responsible decision to eliminate trans fat from their products entirely, but you might be surprised how many brands of popcorn, fried foods, pie crusts, biscuits, and other baked goods still contain hefty amounts of trans fat. Countless other products contain less than half a gram of trans, which can be listed as "0" on the Nutrition Facts label.

Now it's time for the remaining restaurants and food companies that use trans fat to acknowledge the writing on the wall. Long John Silver's and Church's Chicken are two restaurants that recently decided to phase out their use of trans fat, and I applaud them for taking that step. Carl's Jr., Hardee's, and Popeyes are three chains that are still serving their customers this dangerous ingredient.

You may wonder how this ingredient even ended up in the food supply. In fact, artificial trans fat was long believed to be safe by the scientific community.

Industrially-produced artificial trans fat only dates as far back as the early 1900s, when German chemist Wilhelm Normann found that liquid vegetable or fish oils could be treated with hydrogen gas to make them solid or semi-solid. It was widely believed that trans fat was safer than saturated fat, until a few human and animal studies in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that it actually promoted heart disease. Those studies were minimized by FDA-commissioned reviews in 1976 and 1985 that concluded that the bulk of the evidence did not demonstrate that partially hydrogenated oils were harmful. Beginning in 1990, however, clinical and epidemiology studies provided irrefutable evidence that trans fat was a major cause of heart disease.

Thankfully, the end is in sight for this discredited fat and all the heart attack deaths it causes. The FDA is now inviting public comment on its determination, and I hope you will join me in writing in support of finally eliminating artificial trans fat from the food supply.