A Little More Each Day

One working mama learning to run & to maintain my 100+ pound weight loss!

FDA eliminates trans fats: Big changes coming to our grocery stores!

on November 9, 2013

There was a big announcement from the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) this week: partially hydrogenated oils are going to be removed from the lists of foods/components that are “generally considered as safe.” This is huge news from a health perspective, as partially hydrogenated oils are one of our biggest sources of trans fats. This prompted lots of discussion and questions from my husband, so I thought it was worth talking about briefly here.

What is partially hydrogenated oil and why is it bad?

Partially hydrogenated oil is created when liquid oil is treated with hydrogen gas and made solid. This started showing up in our processed foods back in the 1950s because it increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods. It is most commonly found in crackers, cookies, baked goods, stick margarine and vegetable shortening, frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, coffee creamer and other processed foods. The problem with partially hydrogenated oil is that it is a huge source of trans fats and we now know that trans fats are incredibly bad for you.

What are trans fats?

Trans fats are a particular kind of fat in our diet (the trans refers to its biochemical structure) that can occur naturally from ruminants like cows (a by-product of the bacteria they need for digestion) but is most commonly found in partially hydrogenated oil. Over the last 15-20 years, nutritional research has determined that it is not fat in our diet in general that is associated with bad health outcomes in humans, but rather the kind of fat that causes a problem and trans fats are definitely the higher risk. Trans fats both raise LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and lower HDL (“good cholesterol” – scrubs away at plaques in our arteries) without offering a single health benefit. They’ve been shown in several studies to seriously increase our risk of coronary artery disease and heart attacks. According to the Institute of Medicine, there is no safe amount of trans fat we can consume in a day. It has been required to be noted on food labels since 2006 and a lot of companies started changing their practices at that point, anticipating that consumers would be avoiding things high in trans fats. The labeling has definitely helped – our national consumption of trans fats has significantly dropped during this time period, but it is still too high to be considered safe. By decreasing our intake even further with this ban on partially hydrogenated oils, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is estimating that 7000 deaths and 20,000 heart attacks each year will be avoided.

Sneaky sources of trans fats

The problem with the labeling requirement is that a company could label something as “0” grams of trans fat so long as there was less than 0.5 grams per serving. That presents several problems. A) If I eat several different “0” trans fat foods during the day that in fact had 0.4 grams of trans fats, I can easily surpass the 2 grams a day that is the maximum daily intake of trans fat recommended by the American Heart Association. B) That “per serving” part can be very tricky because we know that we as Americans are really bad at observing the recommended serving size on the package. The biggest offender in my house is my coffee creamer:

image

 

According to the nutrition label, it has zero trans fat grams but partially hydrogenated oils are the first (and therefore most prevalent) ingredient. It would be easy for this to add up, especially when you think about how much more creamer people tend to use than the recommended serving size.

What does this FDA announcement really mean?

This is currently a preliminary recommendation that has not yet been finalized. There is a public comment period open through January 7, 2014 (click here if you’d like to comment) and discussions are on-going with industry and small business to determine exactly how to implement this ban. If partially hydrogenated oils are officially designated as not “generally recognized as safe”, any product that contains them will not be able to be legally sold in the United States without prior approval from the FDA. This won’t completely eliminate trans fats, as they do occur naturally in small amounts in some foods, but will drastically reduce their presence in the American diet. It’s not clear yet when this change would show up on our grocery store shelves, as the FDA will have to work with industry to determine how quickly this can realistically occur. Many companies are already working on these changes, but there will be a big difference between meeting the “0” gram trans fat cutoff target they were using before (i.e. less than 0.5 grams, meaning they could still use small amounts) and absolute elimination of partially hydrogenated oils (interesting CNBC article on the work companies are already doing here).

Recommendations to avoid trans fats:

  • Choose liquid vegetable oils for cooking (I’m going to work this Christmas on reformulating my childhood favorite M&M cookie recipe as it is shortening based!).
  • Avoid processed foods (better for  us in general anyway).
  • Unless it is a restaurant or chain that you know has specifically changed practices to avoid trans fats, avoid fried foods.
  • Check the product label and look for partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list. As you can see above, my coffee creamer is “0” trans fat but partially hydrogenated oil is the first ingredient – not good! I’ll be switching over to almond milk.

Resources for further reading:

FDA.gov: FDA targets trans fat

Centers for Disease Control: Nutrition for Everyone – Trans Fats includes their fact sheet, as well as links to information from the FDA and USDA (US Department of Agriculture)

NB C News: FDA moves to phase out trans fats

NY Times: F.D.A. Ruling Would All but Eliminate Trans Fats

Harvard School of Public Health Shining the Spotlight on Trans Fats

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5 responses to “FDA eliminates trans fats: Big changes coming to our grocery stores!

  1. Jaime says:

    im glad this is happening. but a super silly thing that happened at my house involving transfats. i got these pillsbury biscuits, one that are precooked and frozen with a resealable bag. so at some point i noticed it had a lot of transfats in them, so they were dubbed transfat biscuits. 🙂 and after the package was done we stopped buying them.

  2. […] FDA eliminates trans fats: Big changes coming to our grocery stores! (littlemoreeachday.wordpress.com) […]

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