The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a major step this week toward eliminating a major health risk present in the American diet. The FDA announced that artificial fats that are present in many processed foods and fast foods, will be phased out of the U.S. food supply over the next three years.
The three year phase-out allows food manufacturers to find alternative ingredients to replace trans fats and reformulate their products to be in compliance with the new FDA regulation, which is expected to be essentially a zero-tolerance policy against the artificial substance.
“I suspect the FDA will allow only truly minor uses, like in sprinkles on cupcakes,” said Michael Jacobsen, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
And those few products containing trans fats that will remain on store shelves and on restaurant menus after the three years, will be from companies who have applied for and been approved through the FDA’s new exemption process.
This is not the FDA’s first action addressing trans fats in the food supply. In 2006, the FDA began requiring manufacturers to list the trans fat content of their foods on product packaging. Only products containing .5 percent or less trans fats were allowed to label their products free of trans fat, an ingredient carrying no nutritional value. The new action takes it a step further.
But will eliminating trans fats from processed and fast foods truly have an impact on the health of Americans? The FDA believes it will. According to the FDA press release announcing their three year plan, trans fat consumption in America decreased by an estimated 78 percent between 2003 and 2012, and they attribute that decrease to a consumer market that is better educated to the effects of trans fats through product labeling. The elimination of trans fats from manufactured and fast foods should further reduce the consumption of trans fats, as their availability will be even more limited.
Trans fats are made by mixing oils with hydrogen to create a rich and versatile fat that enhances the texture and flavor of foods such as baked goods, refrigerated dough, fried foods, frosting, and microwave popcorn. Trans fats also spoil less quickly than their natural counterparts, and thereby extend the shelf life of items that are made with them. Trans fats are also less expensive than natural fats like oil, butter or lard, and therefore are an ingredient that makes economic sense to food manufacturers; but at what cost to consumer health?
Trans fat, in the form of shortening, was introduced into the American diet in 1911, and was considered an economical and quality alternative to traditional fats, like butter. It gained favor with food manufacturers because it made their products lighter, fluffier, more flavorful, and at a lower cost. The American government even changed its dietary recommendations regarding trans fats, believing at one point, that trans fats were more healthy than natural saturated fats; but they got it all wrong.
“In the 1950s and ‘60s, we mistakenly told Americans that butter and eggs were bad for them and pushed people to margarine, which is basically trans fat. What we’ve learned now, is that saturated fat is relatively neutral – it is the trans fat that is really harmful and we made the dietary situation worse,” said Dr. Steven Nissen, the chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, in an interview with CNN.
Trans fats are a real dietary double-whammy. According to the Mayo Clinic, trans fats raise LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol), and lower HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol). When that “bad” cholesterol is consumed, it travels through the bloodstream, and builds up in the arteries, hardening and narrowing them, and potentially leading to heart disease, the number one killer of men and women in America.
The FDA projects that the elimination of trans fats from manufactured and fast foods could potentially save thousands of lives annually, by reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke.