FDA Bans Trans Fat but… What is Trans Fat?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, artificial trans fat will have to disappear from American diets within the next three years. On Tuesday, June 16, the FDA ruled that trans fat is not “generally recognized as safe” for use in human food. The FDA gave food manufacturers three years to remove the partially hydrogenated oils, or PHOs, from their products. Companies will have the opportunity to petition the FDA for a special permit to use PHOs in their products but no PHOs can be added to human food unless otherwise approved by the FDA.

Sounds like a huge step forward, right? In order to fully understand the magnitude of this FDA decision, it is important to understand the basics of trans fats.

Trans fat is an unhealthy substance, also known as trans fatty acid, made through the chemical process of hydrogenation of oils. Hydrogenation solidifies liquid oils and increases the shelf life and flavor stability of oils and foods that contain them. Partially hydrogenated oils carry no health benefits and the Institute of Medicine has previously determined that no level is safe for consumption. Trans fat wreak havoc on the body’s ability to regulate cholesterol; they drive up the LDL (“bad”) cholesterol which can lead to cardiovascular disease—the leading cause of death in the United States. Eating a diet rich in trans fat is also linked to higher body weight and memory loss.

So where are the trans fats hidden? Trans fat is found in vegetable shortenings and some margarines, crackers, cookies, frosting, frozen pizzas, snack foods and many other foods. These unhealthy fats are also found in abundance in French fries.

Dr. Stephen Ostroff, acting FDA commissioner, said in a news release, “The FDA’s action on this major source of artificial trans fat demonstrates the agency’s commitment to the heart health of all Americans. This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.” Dr. Steven Nissen, the chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, praised the FDA for its “bold courage” and said it “deserves a lot of credit” for taking this “enormously important” move. He also said, “I’m terribly proud of the FDA for stepping in and knowing what needed to be done for the American diet.”

This isn’t the first time that companies throughout the United States have tried to eliminate trans fat. Manufacturers have had to list trans fat content on their labels since 2006. In 2007, New York City adopted a regulation that banned trans fat from restaurants. Over a decade ago, McDonald’s and other companies stopped cooking their French fries in trans fat oil. In 2008, Chick-fil-A removed all artificial trans fat from its menu.

Between these corporations already eliminating trans fat and every other food manufacturer following suit in the next three years, it definitely seems like we’re headed in the right direction.