Chances are you have heard by now that the FDA just announced their intention to further reduce trans fats in processed foods by removing them from the list of Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) additives. The agency opened a comment period to gauge the time frame manufacturers would need in order to reformulate products to remove trans fats, currently found in foods like baked goods, margarines and microwave popcorn, among many others.
You may be asking yourself why the FDA is on the attack, considering so many products boldly advertise “0g trans fat!” right on their label. With clear statements like that, it should be easy for consumers to avoid the artificial fat, suspected to contribute to thousands of heart attacks and deaths. The key is understanding that “0g trans fat” on the packaging does not mean that the product is actually free of trans fat.
Read the Label
If you eat processed foods, you may be ingesting artificial trans fat without being aware of it. According to the agency’s website, the FDA currently mandates that in order for a product to list “0g trans fat,” it must contain less than 0.5 grams per serving. This means that if your coffee creamer asserts “0 g trans fat” but actually contains 0.45g in a serving of 1 tbsp, you could be ingesting quite a bit of the artificial fat in just your morning cuppa joe.
So how do you figure out if you can trust the zero listed next to trans fat on the nutrition label? Let your eyes drop lower to that ingredients list. Trans fats are the result of adding hydrogen to vegetable oils and this process is called hydrogenation. If the manufacturer has done this during production, the ingredients list will include “partially hydrogenated” oil. Spot that phrase and you’ve been unknowingly munching, sipping, or slurping trans fats.
What’s the Big Deal?
Trans fats have been shown to raise bad cholesterol while lowering good cholesterol. Increasing bad cholesterol is a risk factor which contributes to coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. The CDC estimates that reducing consumption of artificial trans fat could prevent anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 deaths from coronary heart disease each year.
What’s Going to Change?
By determining that partially hydrogenated oils are not GRAS, the FDA would mandate that manufacturers could not use them in foods without approval from the agency. This means that a company would be allowed to use partially hydrogenated oils if they are able to prove there is a “reasonable certainty of no harm,” though it would be unlikely the FDA would approve it. In essence, the FDA’s tightening of restrictions would make it much more difficult for a company to justify the use of partially hydrogenated oils, further decreasing the American consumer’s intake of trans fat.
Will I Notice a Difference?
Because trans fats add flavor, texture and increase shelf-life, consumers may notice a difference in their processed food if the manufacturer ditches the partially hydrogenated oils for soybean, canola, or vegetable oils. If you’ve read this article in terror at the thought of losing your favorite guilty pleasure snack (we all need one sometimes, right?), don’t panic just yet. The FDA’s preliminary determination is just that – preliminary. The key is in the ignition, but you’ve got a while until the car is cruising down the street.