FDA Working to Eliminate Trans Fat from the Consumer Marketplace
In today’s supplement market there are many products a consumer could buy that contains compounds which are harmful, undisclosed to the buyer, or just plain dangerous. This is evident by the relatively frequent recalls of supplement compounds in US and other markets following negative consequences among those who used it. Thankfully there is a degree of oversight over staple food products and licensed medicines, and the entities involved in this oversight take charge when products have clearly been shown to be unsafe to the average consumer. On that note, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently took steps toward eliminating trans fats from foods purchased at your local grocery store. The agency states that a major source of trans fats, being partially hydrogenated oils, is no longer "generally recognized as safe”. If this determination is finalized, partially hydrogenated oils will be categorized as food additives that cannot be included in a food product without approval. Foods with unapproved additives cannot legally be sold. Trans fat can be found in popular processed foods including desserts, pastries, doughnuts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarine, coffee creamer, and peanut butter. Unfortunately, it has been linked with an increased risk for heart disease due to its unfavorable effects on the blood lipid profile. Trans fats increase “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL) while simultaneously lowering “good” cholesterol levels (HDL).
Partially hydrogenated oil, or trans fat, is created by adding hydrogen to liquid oils to make solid fats such as margarine. This modified chemical configuration increases the shelf life, consistency and flavor of foods while increasing the melting point for the fat content. This modification allows for the food conveniences we experience today such as peanut butter that spreads smoothly when it should be lumpy and thick, or the ability to eat a Twinkie a few years after purchasing it without any negative health effects due to spoilage (if kept in the sealed wrapper). Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil has been used in the US since 1911 in the form of shortening. Recently however, many food manufacturers have taken steps to limit or eliminate trans fat from their products. For example, McDonald's reportedly stopped cooking their French fries in oil containing trans fat more than 10 years ago. Furthermore, trans fat intake among American consumers has decreased from 4.6 grams/day in 2003 to about 1.0 gram/day in 2012, according to the FDA. Even with these positive signs, "current intake remains a significant public health concern," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a written statement. There is no safe intake level for trans fat, she says. This is in agreement with all findings within the scientific community that have investigated the effects of trans fat on human physiology. Even so, a ban on artificial trans fats would not necessarily mean it will disappear from the average diets. A small quantity of natural trans fats can be found in the tissues of cows, sheep and goats.
The FDA recently opened a 60-day comment period on the determination "to collect additional data and to gain input on the time potentially needed for food manufacturers to reformulate products that currently contain artificial trans fat should this determination be finalized," the agency said. Hamburg called Thursday's move "an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat." The American Heart Association (AHA) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest were among those praising the move. This praise reflects findings by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention which estimate that avoiding foods containing artificially trans fats could prevent 10,000-20,000 heart attacks and 3,000-7,000 coronary heart disease deaths each year. "Artificial trans fat is a uniquely powerful promoter of heart disease, and today's announcement will hasten its eventual disappearance from the food supply," said Michael Jacobson, the Center for Science in the Public Interest's executive director. "Not only is artificial trans fat not safe, it's not remotely necessary. Many companies, large and small, have switched to healthier oils over the past decade. I hope that those restaurants and food manufacturers that still use this harmful ingredient see the writing on the wall and promptly replace it."
"I completely agree with the FDA's decision," Dr. Joshua Septimus, an internist and clinical lipidologist with Houston Methodist Hospital said. "I applaud the government for making a tough choice and standing up for Americans' health rather than the vested interests of the processed food industry. Previous labeling of partially hydrogenated oils as 'presumed to be safe' is simply false: we know they cause heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, this is no different from banning a poison from food. Individuals may not die right away from trans fats, but as our understanding of the compounds has expanded, so has our realization that they slowly poison our arteries." In the meantime, experts recommend that consumers choose products that have the lowest combined quantities of saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fat. It should be noted that under current regulations companies can claim their food has no trans fat if the food contains <0.5 grams of trans fat per serving; but this may also change in the near future. The FDA taking steps to protect the consumer through an undertaking of this magnitude could be taken as a good sign that the agency plans to tighten the present “looseness” of current rules and regulations placed upon food manufacturers used to ensure protection of the American public. Others may take this as a sign of progression towards lessening liberty on what a person can choose to eat, with greater restrictions to potentially come.