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Published: August, 2015; Vol 12, Num 3

FDA Takes Aim at Heart Disease, Cuts Trans Fats

Trans fats make breakfast biscuits flaky and fried chicken crispy, but they also increase risk for clogged arteries. That is why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled that this staple in processed food manufacturing must go the way of the dinosaur. The agency has ordered food manufacturers to stop using artificial trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) by June 2018.

“This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year,” said the FDA’s Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, M.D.

Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 610,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S. every year. That’s one in every four deaths.

The three year window for phasing out trans fats, which has the support of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, gives companies time to reformulate their products. Many have already done so. Naturally occurring trans fats found in minuscule amounts in dairy and animal meats are not affected by the FDA order.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are used to extend the shelf life and improve the texture and flavor of processed food. They are created by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil to make it more solid. Stick margarine and vegetable shortening are examples. Trans fats are inexpensive to produce and can last a long time. Cooking oil that contains trans fats can be reused multiple times to deep-fry foods and for years it was commonly used in restaurant and fast-food kitchens.

In the 1990s, however, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that trans fats were more damaging to heart health than saturated fats and were responsible for at least 30,000 premature U.S. deaths every year. Unlike other dietary fats, trans fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and at the same time, lower HDL (good) cholesterol, making them the most dangerous fats.

Trans Fats in Canada

The Great White North permits trans fats although discussions are underway to phase them out and some food manufacturers have voluntarily reformulated products.

Like the U.S., heart disease is the leading cause of death in Canada. Heart ailments kill 33,600 Canadians every year.

British Columbia is the only province that imposes restrictions on trans fats. In accordance with Health Canada Trans Fat Task Force Recommendations, restaurants and other commercial food establishments can use vegetable oils and spreadable margarine that contain no more than two percent trans fat. All other food can have no more than five percent trans fat. 

The FDA responded by requiring that trans fat content be listed on food labels beginning in 2006. Consumers were also advised to reduce consumption of products that contained trans fat. Many fast-food chains and snack food manufacturers also began phasing out trans fats. The result, according to the FDA, is that Americans today eat about 78 percent less trans fats.

However, there are still a number of holdouts. In addition to stick margarines and vegetable shortenings, certain brands of refrigerator dough, ready-made cake frostings, microwave popcorn and frozen pizza still contain trans fats. In a posting on FDAVoice, Susan Mayne, Director of the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said routine consumption of these items creates health risks. 

“[F]or consumers who consistently choose products with added [partially hydrogenated oils], their daily intake of industrially-produced trans fat is approximately twice as high as the average consumer,” Mayne said.

Now that there is a deadline for phasing out trans fats, food manufacturers are looking for alternatives. Palm oil is one possibility, but it is high in saturated fats. Modified soybean oil that does not need to be hydrogenated is another.

Either way, foods that have been using trans fats may soon be a little different. They could be oilier, for example. Your breakfast biscuit may be less flaky and your fried chicken not as crispy, but your taste buds will adjust and your heart will thank you.

The LHSFNA’s Nutrition and Fitness for Laborers program can help Laborers improve dietary and exercise habits. The program includes an Instructor’s Guide, participant pamphlets and educational posters. For more information, call 202-628-5465. The LHSFNA brochures Becoming Physically Active and Weight Matters offer additional tips and information on diet and exercise. They can be ordered by going to www.lhsfna.org and clicking on Publications.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]