In 1994 the Center for Science in the Public Interest first petitioned the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require companies to list the amount of artificial trans fats on nutrition labels. Now, more than 15 years later, the FDA hopes to greatly reduce the amount of harmful fats in the American food supply and has taken a positive step toward improving national hearth health.
Just last week the agency proposed that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs)—the primary dietary source of artificial trans fats—no longer be “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. Despite being a significant contributor to heart disease, trans fats can still be found in many products, including pre-packaged baked goods, frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn and even coffee creamer. Under the new ruling, PHOs would be considered “food additives” and could not be used in food unless companies were able to prove their safety.
“The FDA’s action today is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat,” stated FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. in a November 7 press release. “Further reduction in the amount of trans fat in the American diet could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year—a critical step in the protection of Americans’ health.”
Although trans fats occur naturally in small amounts (mainly in meat and dairy foods), most are created artificially by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation, which increases the shelf life of processed foods and enhances the flavor and texture. Unlike beneficial monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, trans fats have been shown to raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. In addition, trans fats lower HDL or “good” cholesterol levels, and scientists believe even two or three grams a day can increase the health risk.
While most U.S. food manufacturers and restaurants (including fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken) have already significantly reduced or discontinued their use of trans fats, the FDA hopes to target the last remaining culprits. Following the announcement, the agency opened a 60-day comment period to “collect additional data” and give manufacturers enough time to reformulate products if the ruling is finalized.
Eating right is one of the most important things you can do for the health of your body, but sometimes it’s hard to know what’s good for you and what’s not—especially when it comes to a little thing called fats. The most important thing to know here is that not all fats are bad, as many of us have been led to believe. There are, in fact, healthy fats like the Omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish (along with some nuts, seeds and veggies), but on the same note there are also some not-so-healthy fats—the most notorious of which are trans fats.
Why are Trans Fats so Bad?
Trans fats are essentially unsaturated oils that have been treated with hydrogen so that the oil becomes solid and more stable at room temperature. Many margarines, shortenings, fried foods and processed foods (think baked goods, pizza dough, cookies, crackers and snack foods) are high in trans fats, and studies have shown that these unhealthy fats can wreak havoc on the body. According to the American Heart Association,
“Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.” i
Don’t Trust the Label
Did you know that foods labeled “no trans fat” can legally contain a certain amount of trans fats? It’s true. Manufacturers are allowed to round down anything less than 0.5 g of trans fat—something to keep in mind when you think you’re eating a trans fat-free food. (You could actually be consuming more of these unhealthy fats than you think.) Though new label changes may be on the horizon, to be on the safe side always check your food labels and avoid anything that contains partially hydrogenated oils.
3 Quick Tips for Eating Fats
- Eat more monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil) and Omega-3 fats. These unsaturated fats contribute to the fluidity of cell membranes, as well as to the regulation of inflammatory response—all health-promoting actions.
- Be sure to eat saturated fats in moderation. Even better, obtain your saturated fats from coconut oil, a medium-chain saturated fat considered a healthy saturated fat due to its shorter chain length and rapid metabolism.
- Eat fats along with veggies. A recent study found that the carotenoid nutrients (beta carotene is a carotenoid) found in salads were best absorbed when eaten in combination with monounsaturated fats as opposed to saturated or even polyunsaturated fats. If you’ve been passing on the salad dressing because you want to cut down on fat, you’re better off adding fat—opt for a vinaigrette made with olive oil.
And always remember that fat is a nutrient—not the enemy! Just be sure to choose the right fats.