After years of debate in the medical community and the media, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to put its proverbial foot down, announcing in June that partially hydrogenated oils (PHO), the major dietary source of trans fats in processed foods, must be eliminated from all food products by the year 2018. This comes on the heels of a 2006 FDA mandate to include trans fats on the Nutrition Facts label, and a 2013 decision that deemed PHOs no longer “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS).
Here are 4 things you should know relating to the FDA ban on trans fats:
What Are PHOs?
So what is this stuff anyway? PHOs are artificial trans fats that are widespread in processed foods like refrigerated dough products, fast food, crackers, microwave popcorn, cakes, cookies, pies, coffee creamers and stick margarines. They are attractive to food manufacturers because they prolong shelf life and give a desirable consistency
Why Should I Care?
Trans fats have a bad reputation for a reason. Artificial trans fat consumption has been shown to raise LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and decrease HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol), factors that contribute to coronary heart disease. Trans fats have also been linked with increased risk of obesity, heart attack and stroke.
What Happens Next?
While the ban of PHOs in the U.S. food supply is a welcome development in the world of public health, it is important to consider what food manufacturers will use to replace PHOs. Interesterified fats and fractionated fats are two prime contenders for the job. Interesterified (IE) and fractionated fats also prolong shelf life and allow for a higher cooking temperature. There is limited research on IE, but a 2007 study published in Nutrition Metabolism found that IE and PHO have similar adverse effects on cholesterol, and IE further produced a 20 percent rise in blood sugar.
Fractionated fats are typically made with palm or coconut oil, which are mostly saturated fat — another fat linked to adverse cholesterol outcomes and increased cardiovascular disease risk. The process to create these fats has also been shown to increase the saturation level of palm oil and remove its good qualities (e.g., anti-oxidant properties). So although we applaud the ban on PHO, we are not necessarily out of the woods.
What’s a Consumer to Do?
Until we have more research on interesterified and fractionated fats, it is best to avoid products that contain these ingredients. Check the ingredients list on the Nutrition Facts label for trans fat and also the terms “partially hydrogenated,” “interesterified” or “fractionated.” These fats are mostly found in processed foods, which are typically also packed with calories, sugar and sodium — and not the high-quality nutrients that keep our bodies strong.
But remember, it’s not just one food or ingredient that defines your overall health; it is your total eating pattern and lifestyle choices that determine your well-being. A focus on eating whole foods, rather than processed, and exercising every day will help reduce your risk factors and keep you feeling good. Think whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables (the more colorful, the better), lean protein (fish, eggs, poultry), fiber-rich foods like legumes and heart-healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts).
However, if you’re going to indulge once in a while, try to choose products that do not contain any of the modified fats (PHO, IE, fractionated) until we know more about how they affect our health.
Take the next step:
- Find out how to incorporate “clean eating” into your diet.
- Look into some effective nutrition apps for your smartphone.
- Watch a video about the fats that are good for you.
Katie Surnow, MPH, completed her rotation in Cardiovascular Medicine Nutrition at Domino’s Farms as part of her dietetic internship. She received her Master’s in Public Health from the U-M School of Public Health.
The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.