On November 7, 2013, the FDA took the first step (a preliminary determination) to reclassify trans fats as a "food additive." If finalized, trans fats will not be allowed as an ingredient in foods without FDA approval. In other words, artificial trans fats will be virtually eliminated from the US food supply.
So what would this change mean for the foods we love? To answer this question and to find out a bit more about trans fats, Best Food Facts reached out to sports nutritionist Dr. Liz Applegate, Senior Lecturer, Department of Nutrition and Director of Sports Nutrition, Intercollegiate Athletics, University of California – Davis, and Dr. Ruth MacDonald, Chair and Professor of the Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition, Iowa State University.
Which foods have trans fats?
Dr. Applegate: There are small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats in some food products like butter and beef, but they are not viewed as harmful – they’re in very small amounts. The problem with artificially-produced trans fats is that there are a lot more of them. And now that the scientific community knows more about trans fats, it is recommended that you completely eliminate artificial trans fat from your diet. This means avoiding consuming hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil.
Dr. MacDonald: Some trans fats do occur naturally, especially in dairy products. These are found in very low amounts and have not been associated with health concerns. In the process of adding back hydrogens, a mixture of cis and trans fats result. Therefore, hydrogenated fats can be a source of trans fats. With the recent focus on reducing trans fats, however, newer processes have been developed that limit the amount of trans fats in these products. Some types of commercially fried foods have trans fats, such as donuts and French fries – depending on the types of oils that are used.
Why should we avoid trans fats?
Dr. Applegate: Trans fats change the way fat and cholesterol are transported in the blood stream. The body does its best to transport fats and cholesterol through the bloodstream with carriers called lipoproteins. For example, let’s say you’re driving around, and you see trucks, cars and busses on the road. The busses are lipoproteins. They have passengers inside and the passengers are fats (triglycerides) and cholesterol. When a trans fat boards the bus (lipoprotein), it tends to mess things up. The busses don’t quite go where they’re supposed to, and there are traffic jams (increased risk of heart disease and blockage of arteries). Trans fats also contribute to inflammation. Heart disease is an inflammatory-related condition, meaning irritation on the artery wall, sometimes caused by trans fats.
Dr. MacDonald: There is evidence that consumption of trans fats can increase the risk of heart disease. Many factors contribute to the overall risk of cardiovascular disease however, including one’s body weight, exercise and lifestyle habits and overall diet (high fat, high sugar diets are contributors to heart disease whereas high fruits and vegetables, diets rich in fiber and lean meats and dairy are more protective). Trans fats are only one aspect of diet associated with heart disease and only changing the amount of trans fat in the diet will not eliminate heart disease risk – overall diet changes are still needed.
How do we tell if foods have trans fats?
Dr. Applegate: Currently, the amount of trans fat in each food product is listed on the nutrition label. However, you may notice that the percent daily value for trans fat is not listed. That’s because there is no daily value. Trans fat should not be in the diet at all.
But not all trans fat is listed on the nutrition label. The FDA allows food manufacturers to label their product as trans-fat free if the product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. For example, I love cheese-flavored crackers. On the label, it lists 0 grams, but in reality, they have just under 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. I often eat more than one serving of these crackers, which really means I eat at least 2 or 3 grams of trans fats. Trans fats should be avoided altogether.
Dr. Applegate: The FDA is currently taking comments on the proposed rule, but the proposal is for food manufacturers to completely eliminate trans fat, which would also mean eliminating trans fats in those food products that still have less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving.
What replaces trans fats?
Dr. Applegate: Some have speculated that palm oil will replace trans fats, but it is really high in saturated fat. Coconut oil might be another option, but it’s not a healthy fat either. At this time, the industry doesn’t really know what will replace trans fats, but scientists are working on finding a solution that is truly trans fat free. But just because we replace trans fats with another oil doesn’t automatically make it healthier. We all have to watch our overall fat intake because usually high fat foods are calorie dense foods. Yes, you can still have crackers and cookies, but you have to control amounts. Just because it may be trans fat free doesn’t make it a healthy food.
Dr. MacDonald: This is a major concern of the food industry. If hydrogenated fats are banned, there will be the need to use other saturated fats foods – things like palm oils, lard and butter will be need to be used. Saturated fats are also a major concern for heart disease risk, so eliminating hydrogenated fats may just end up substituting one bad for another bad. Some foods may have added sugars to replace some of the fat as well, which also would not be a healthful change.
What will need to be done to get trans fats out of foods? Is there enough supply of other oils?
Dr. MacDonald: Whenever a major change in the source of ingredients is needed, scientists and food companies need to look at the supply chain. Hydrogenated fats are made in the U.S. from corn and soybeans, so the price and availability are good and contribute to the overall low price of food in the U.S. This has been a sustainable, renewable and reliable source of ingredients. If exotic types of oils are used, we will be dependent upon other countries for them and the challenges and uncertainties that brings into the equation. Many environmental and sociological factors come into play when the demand for food and food ingredients changes – especially from overseas sources - and there is no doubt banning hydrogenated fats will require substantial research by all food companies to find a suitable and sustainable alternative.