The FDA just announced it will try to ban trans fats from food production. But why are trans fats harmful, how can you avoid them and will the FDA be able to push through with this?
What Are Trans Fats?
Put simply, trans fats are poly- or monounsaturated fatty acids, which on a first glimpse sounds nice. Because unsaturated fats are the good guys, aren’t they?
Well, trans fats are a bit different, because they are created by pushing hydrogen through hot vegetable oil. This chemically converts unsaturated oils, that are liquid at room temperature, into a fat that is solid.
Which from the food manufacturer’s point of view provides several advantages: solid fat is easier to store, less likely to spoil and convenience food made with it looks less greasy, has stable flavors and stays good for longer.
On labels companies sometimes state trans fats as “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oil or “vegetable shortening,” but it’s the same thing.
Now can putting hydrogen into oil be that bad? It sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it?
Why Are They Dangerous?
Unfortunately yes, it is very likely harmful. An increasing amount of research shows that trans fats not only lower the “good” HDL cholesterol, but simultaneously raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol level. The CDC estimates that about 5,000 cardiac deaths per year in the US wouldn’t happen if trans fats were avoided (PDF). A 1994 study even came to the conclusion that the effect of trans fat was responsible for about 30,000 deaths per year.
Why trans fats appear to have this much influence on your cholesterol is still not fully understood, but the reasoning so far is that your body may recognize trans fats as saturated fats.
Will The FDA Push Through This Time?
For those three, studies are much more limited, but at least for heart disease the FDA now found the evidence convincing enough. The agency today announced it wants to entirely eliminate trans fat from the food supply and started the 60-day public comment period.
I’m not sure everybody knows what an effort this is for the FDA. This is not taking action against some small supplement peddler, this is taking on a whole industry. Can it still handle that or is it actually a sign of the FDA’s resurgence?
In the past two decades, the FDA has gotten the heat for not acting all too often, but the public doesn’t realize that no other governmental body has been hamstringed as much. I’m not saying the FDA isn’t riddled with the plague that is the hallmark of many governmental institutions, bureaucratic incompetence, but in my opinion it often would have if it could have.
I dearly hope it has the power and enough allies to push this one through. Soon we’ll know more.
Ho To Limit Your Trans Fats
While we are waiting for the FDA, there is still something you can do to limit your trans fat consumption right now:
- Say no to all “partially hydrogenated” shortenings and fats used for deep-frying, baking, cooking etc.
- “Fully” or “completely” hydrogenated oil you don’t have to fear; it doesn’t contain trans fats
- Eliminate margarines which are a mixture of trans fats and saturated fats
- If the production of a convenience food involves fat or oil (cookies, pizza, fries etc.) and the packaging does not state “free of trans fats” or “0% trans fat” assume trans fat was used
- When visiting fast food restaurants, ask how they handle it. Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC in the past used trans fats in many products, and today probably still do with some
What About Natural Trans Fats?
Most of the trans fat we today consume is industrially produced, but trans fats also occur in the milk and body fat from ruminants like cows and sheep. If those are as harmful is still under research.
However, the amount of trans fats in animal products is very low anyway. Removing these foods from your diet could lead you to nutritional imbalances that can be worse than putting up with those small trans fat amounts.
What About You?
Do you consciously avoid trans fats or don’t you worry about them? Do you think the FDA will succeed?
Picture courtesy of Marcin Wichary.