Why the FDA is moving towards banning trans fats

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing to severely limit the consumption of trans fats.  Let’s delve into what THAT means exactly.

Trans fats have been shown to both increase bad cholesterol (LDL), and decrease good cholesterol (HDL).

Increasing bad LDL, and decreasing good HDL, increases the risk that someone might have a heart attack or stroke.

Foods that contain or are prepared with oils that have been partially hydrogenated by the addition of hydrogen rare often high in trans fats. The FDA is looking to label these partially hydrogenated oils as being “not recognized as safe.”

Trans fat via "Shutterstock

Trans fat via “Shutterstock

There are some naturally occurring trans fats that can be found in meats and some dairy products. It’s not known if these are just as bad as artificially produced trans fats or not.

The current recommendation is that, if you eat a 2,000 calorie/day diet, you should eat less than 2 grams of trans fats per day. But keeping track of those 2 daily grams isn’t always easy for the average consumer.  You see, the FDA permits food producers to list trans fats as “0” on nutrition labels if the concentration of trans fats is LESS THAN 0.5 g of trans fat per serving. (The American Heart Association is trying to get the FDA to change its rules on labeling trans fat content. They want the manufacturers to have to list trans fats on the nutrition label if any measurable amount of trans fat is present in the product.)

Considering that you may be eating an unknown amount of trans fats from such incorrectly labeled products, and also be getting some naturally occurring trans fats, most people are probably getting more than 2 grams of trans fats per day even WITHOUT eating anything that contains partially hydrogenated oils. For example, what if a “serving” has 0.4g of trans fat and you eat two servings?  Now you’re approaching 50% of the maximum you should have that day just from one single food.  Therefore, keeping an eye on your trans fat intake is important, but somewhat complicated because of the above labeling.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD, says that trans fat consumption, though it has decreased, is still a health concern. She goes on to say that eliminating trans fats could potentially prevent about 20,000 heart attacks and up to 7,000 deaths per year in the US. Other sources, like the Institute of Medicine, say that trans fats have only bad health effects and that they shouldn’t be consumed in any amounts.

The FDA will hold a 60 day “comment period” where those who want, can make their views about trans fats known. At the end of that time, it will consider the evidence and comments and make a decision regarding the possible reclassification of trans fats.

Trans fats, produced by partially hydrogenating oils, can be found in a number of foods. For example some margarines, cookies, pastry frosting/icings, frozen foods like pizzas and some frozen snack foods, baked goods like biscuits and pie crusts.

Additionally, fried foods may be high in trans fats if the oil used in the frying process is partially hydrogenated. Many companies have been voluntarily decreasing or removing trans fats from their products as evidence of trans fats’ negative effects on cardiovascular health increases. However, there are still a number of trans fats-containing products out there.

On a recent trip to the grocery store, I decided to look for trans fats in a number of products. I found them, in significant amounts in some of the following products: margarine, fried frozen snack foods, icing, frozen pizza, fresh and frozen baked goods and others. Based on the amount of trans fats in some products, had I eaten one serving of margarine and had an iced cupcake, I would have consumed almost 4.5 grams of trans fats from just those two items.

And, since the FDA permits manufacturers to list 0 trans fat content when the content may be just slightly BELOW 0.5 g, my total consumption of trans fats in just that one meal might have been considerably higher than 4.5 g.

And, remember, when you eat out, you really have no idea how much partially hydrogenated oil is present in that meal. In spite of the fact that some manufacturers and restaurants are trying to limit trans fats, not all are – and why should they, if bad oil is cheaper, tastes better, and the customers rarely ask how much fat is in any particular dish, let alone what type of fats.

Some fast food restaurants continue to use partially hydrogenated oils for frying. Others use them in preparing sauces that may be on that fast food burger or in that fast food salad dressing. Or that deep fried chicken of fish may have just been immersed in oil that has been partially hydrogenated.

So in fact, any of us who eat out have no idea how much trans fat we’re consuming at all.  And that’s a really scary thought.  And it more than explains why the FDA is working on phasing out trans fats for good.  CNN explains a bit of what the FDA is planning to do:

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday took a first step toward potentially eliminating most trans fat from the food supply, saying it has made a preliminary determination that a major source of trans fats — partially hydrogenated oils — is no longer “generally recognized as safe.”

If the preliminary determination is finalized, according to the FDA, then partially hydrogenated oils will become food additives that could not be used in food without approval. Foods with unapproved additives cannot legally be sold.

When you have no idea what kind of fat restaurants, and fast food places, are putting into your food, there’s an especially good argument for the government getting involved.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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43 Responses to “Why the FDA is moving towards banning trans fats”

  1. benb says:

    Asked our (French) French professor what French students most ask her about Americans when she goes back to visit. She said they always wonder why American young people are so heavy.

  2. HelenRainier says:

    I read labels and try to avoid what I know is bad. My problem is that I’m not a chemist so the way many ingredients are listed (with long official terms) means very little to me. What would be wrong with printing ingredients with commonly known words instead of “official laboratory” words?

  3. Whitewitch says:

    Oh how I wish they had ….that would have been great!

  4. get your feet out! says:

    Trans fats and smoking are a perfectly wonderful way to keep the 99% from greatly outliving their useful working life spans. — The Prince

  5. get your feet out! says:

    Hey! It’s not misleading or lying, at all, to allow a “0 trans fat” label onto a food that, in reality, contains nearly half a gram of trans fat per serving. (Besides, the longer the 99% live, the more they cost us in long term care money, and the more the .1% has to trim from our palace budgets.)

  6. karmanot says:

    I hope at least one hurl landed on the old SOBs neck.

  7. Loona_c says:

    I got car sick too. With the parents smoking in the car. Didn’t have the violent experiences you guys had. My parents were very sympathetic…they just never thought the smoke might be bothering me. Every now and then when I am close to someone smoking now I do feel nauseus tho.

  8. Whitewitch says:

    First – I totally LOVE your posts and they are often food for thought! I also agree Doctor that we should prevent any long suffering results of illness…that said – it is sadly true though that we are not always certain of the path to prevention.

    For example, Statins are now supposed to be prescribed for a much greater portion of the population in order to prevent death from heart attacks…is that wise – will it work? Who can say – I know the side effects are sometimes far worse than the illness. A impotent man is a NOT VERY HAPPY man – I can promise you that from personal experience (not happy for the man or his companion) – and that is just one of the side effects.

    Stopping Acid Reflux was wonderful when they came out with the purple pill and I was thankful for it…however I have 10 pins in my ankle where the side effect was worse than the illness..especially when I discovered that if I stay away from Wheat and processed foods I have absolutely NO acid reflux..none. So no purple pill required.

    All I am saying is that maybe our human planning is not as effective as we think and we should try to fix our ills with diet, walking a wee bit and laughing several times a day.

  9. docsterx says:

    Many manufacturers have eliminated trans fats. Most of the frozen products I looked at listed the trans fat content as “0.” However there were some pizzas, frozen snacks like fried mushrooms and other fried snacks that did have trans fats. reading the nutrition label seems to be the only way to be relatively sure of what you’re eating.

  10. Russ says:

    Oy, my spelling errors! Supposedly “auto-corrected”…

  11. Russ says:

    I always read the ingredients list – I’ve seen the 0% trans fat on the front of the package, trun it around and on the ingredients list there is “partially-hydroginated__oil” on the list… I put those back on the shelf.

  12. docsterx says:

    Somewhat in defense of the FDA, I need to say that it is a large organization with many divisions and thousands of people. It’s also grossly understaffed based on the mission that it has. ONe estimate that I read stated that for the FDA to do everything it is tasked with per year, it would need to increase its staff by 230%. It’s unfair to characterize it as if it were homogeneous. I’ve had to call the FDA a number of times to report things like drug side effects, possible drug interactions, report a possibly tainted drug product and make some other reports. I’ve also called them asking for information, guidance and to get some expertise from one, or more, of their experts. Every time, I’ve gotten excellent cooperation and quick feedback. Sometimes, the person at the other end has given me tips, helped me navigate through their system, etc. While I’m not a fan of everything the FDA does (or doesn’t do) they really should get some credit for the people who do a good job.

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  14. docsterx says:

    You are right. But about 30% of Americans will die from cardiovascular disease. And not all of them will have a quick death. CV disease can make a patient a cardiac cripple who may spend the last 5 years of her life bedfast, dependent on oxygen and medications. Of it may leave someone in need of an implantable defibrillator, someone who needs to live in a nursing home, etc. Preventing that is a good thing.

  15. docsterx says:

    Monoceros Forth,

    Good points.

    1. True. However, based on the nutrition label alone, we get no idea of the mechanism of hydrogenation. And, honestly, it’s difficult enough to get many people to read the labels. I’m not sure that even if the method of hydrogenation were listed, it would be of any value to the consumer. Unless the label would have a warning something like, “The hydrogenation process used here produces compounds that may be more dangerous to your cardiovascular health than other methods of hydrogenation.” And I think that using H2 and a catalyst is supposed to be the cheapest method and probably one that most companies would use, though I haven’t researched that. So, my feeling is that if it says “partially hydrogenated” just give it a pass to be on the safer side.

    2. ‘m not an expert on lipid analysis and haven’t done any in quite a while. But ATR-FTIR can be used. I’ve done limited IR work and you’re right, interpretation can be difficult. Though I wonder if there aren’t software “fingerprints” that can be used for comparison to make it somewhat more straightforward. You can also use GC with a capillary column and GC with flame ionization detection to determine trans fats. There may be others that can be used, as well.

    I appreciate your comments.

  16. juliensharp says:

    I think that this article from Bloomberg, showing how this ban directly benefits Monsanto and its GMO “produce like food”, is important to note when having this discussion. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-11-12/trans-fat-ban-seen-threatening-4-million-acres-of-soy.html

  17. Whitewitch says:

    Never happens when I am driving – so I prefer to drive. Window open – also very nice!

  18. BeccaM says:

    Happens to me, too. Especially if the car is over-warm and the driver happens to drive like my father did (aggressive, hard turns, sharp braking, jackrabbit starts).

    Sadly, we have a good friend who drives like that. Fortunately, the one time I did throw up, I had sufficient warning and was able to get him to pull over in time.

    I’m okay if I sit up front and can direct some cool-ish air at my face. Better still if I’m driving, of course.

  19. Whitewitch says:

    It must have been the times my Sister….

    Imagine now slapping a child for getting car sick…I still can’t ride in the back for very long without old feelings creeping and I think it is fear of and not really sick..weird eh?

  20. Whitewitch says:

    That is so odd – movie theater popcorn doesn’t taste as good with that Sludge they put on it…I prefer BUTTER!!! Nature made…and yummmy.

  21. Whitewitch says:

    So true and some even fear just plain old dying – weird…since it is the End Game here on this planet…I think we should party when someone Scores a Win!

  22. BeccaM says:

    You sure we’re not related? That’s exactly what used to happen to me.

  23. Monoceros Forth says:

    People have a really bad sense of probability–that’s the problem. We tend to fear exotic, low-probability deaths much more than we fear mundane, high-probability deaths; hence we fear dying in plane crashes far more than we fear dying on a city street and we fear dying of West Nile far more than we fear dying of the flu.

  24. fletcher says:

    You’ll notice that since the FDA announcement the biggest howl is from folks complaining that movie theater popcorn won’t taste good any more. You can expect adds from the trade group representing the makers of that oily butter substitute featuring a mother saying its her job to determine what she feeds her kids, not the government.

  25. Whitewitch says:

    We are all going to die someday….and most of us from heart failure or stroke. Life should be lived and not in fear…eat as you will – with reason, Oh and walk a bit eh?

    My little sister was a health freak of major portent and she worried about every declaration of the doctors/medical community/FDA re unsafe food and chemicals. She died in a car accident at the age of 34 – not wearing a seatbelt. See how it works.

    Reasonable consumption…with occasional splurging like this coming Thursday!

  26. Whitewitch says:

    I got car sick if I had to sit in the back…of course, I always has to sit in the back cause I was a kid. My father would back-hand me as I was vomiting..the only plus side, sometimes he would smash his hand into the window if I was folded over barfing!

  27. BeccaM says:

    I grew up with that second-hand smoke. Winter holiday trips to visit the relatives were among the worst experiences ever.

    And my parents wondered why I was always getting car-sick.

  28. John Sage says:

    Personally I welcome this as one more inducement to motivate freedom-loving true Americans to drive to their closest Chik-fil-A — not wearing their seat belts, of course — and consume a double fried chicken and french fries, washed down with a high-fructose sweetened super-double-Big-Gulp. Or maybe two.

    On the drive home — still not wearing seat belts and talking on their cell phones as they drive — they can have an after-dinner cigarette or two, windows rolled up tight on their car so their children — not in car seats, of course — can share in the second-hand cigarette smoke.

    Isn’t Liberty wonderful!

  29. Indigo says:

    Uh-huh. But we’re talking the FDA here so what’s the trade-off and where’s the under-the-table profit coming from?

  30. Badgerite says:

    LOL!

  31. Fentwin says:

    Mr. Magoo’s glasses wouldn’t even make a dent in their myopia.

  32. Monoceros Forth says:

    The real problem is that cis-trans isomerization of alkenes is energetically favorable so any prolonged heating of an alkene will tend to favor the formation of trans-isomers. Many substances will catalyze this isomerization as well.

  33. Naja pallida says:

    There’s been claims that cottonseed is not regulated as food crop, and thus can have more pesticides, but it is regulated in the same way that all other oil seeds, like canola, flax seed, safflower seed, etc, are. Not that those regulations make it any better for you. It’s still relatively high in saturated fat, and low in monounsaturated fat, and hidden in many heavily processed foods.

    There’s also been concern because cottonseed oil, in its unprocessed state, is naturally toxic. But the refining and bleaching process removes the toxicity. Of course, they have to use all sorts of other chemicals in the refining process, so who knows what else they’re introducing while they’re taking away one undesirable aspect.

    Instead of specifying certain things, and offering vague conjecture on why they should be avoided, doctors should just be telling people to avoid processed and preserved foods wherever possible… and when it isn’t possible, moderation is always important.

  34. cole3244 says:

    if the fda is making changes is it for the consumer or the corporations, inquiring minds need to know.

  35. Monoceros Forth says:

    A few points:

    1. There is nothing wrong with hydrogenation per se. The difficulty is that the simplest and cheapest method of hydrogenation, using hydrogen gas and solid-supported catalysts, causes cis-trans isomerization of double bonds as a side effect. Not all hydrogenation reactions cause isomerization; even with conventional hydrogenation with solid catalysts, not all catalysts cause the same degree of cis-trans isomerization. A blanket ban on partially hydrogenated fats, then, is not strictly a fair way to address this problem.

    2. There seems to be an assumption here that the exact quantity of trans-fat in a foodstuff is something that food manufacturers know but deliberately conceal. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not; I don’t know for sure. But let me point out that while adequate determinations of total fat and of the degree of unsaturation of the fat in a food sample can be made even with a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment, determination of trans-fat is a more difficult analytical task. Short of a complete determination of the exact fatty acid composition of a sample, I’m guessing that the only way to get an estimate of the trans-fat content with a single test of a sample is by vibrational spectroscopy (IR or Raman) and looking for characteristic vibrational modes that differ between cis- and trans-alkenes. Anyone who’s done any IR spectroscopy knows how tricky it can be to interpret IR transmission spectra even of a pure substance. This is just my guess–if any better informed reader can correct me I’d appreciate it: the “less than 0.5 g” rule was imposed not so that manufacturers could hide behind a rounding error but because easy (and therefore easily automated) testing methods for trans-fats aren’t precise enough reliably to determine smaller amounts.

  36. Badgerite says:

    Well, ‘their eyes’ probably need some glasses then, she griped.

  37. Loona_c says:

    Also you need to watch out for palm and coconut oils. AND cotton seed. My Dad’s cardiologist warned against all three. You don’t hear anything about cotton seed oil and the Dr. said “cotton is not grown as a ‘food crop’ and therefore bad pesticides can be used on them when they are growing.'” I’d love to hear more about this!

  38. Loona_c says:

    I also understand that oils that are free of trans fats when used in fryers over and over again can become hydrogenated.

  39. Fentwin says:

    “Is that too much to ask for?”
    If it cuts into their precious profits, then yes it is too much to ask, in their eyes.

  40. James says:

    if its under .5 gram it doesnt have to be listed in the label. It can also be called 0 trans fats. Labels are useless.

  41. Badgerite says:

    I hate that. When I have no control over the consumption or non consumption of a product that I am told is dangerous because I am simply not told the truth about what the food I am buying contains.
    Is that too much to ask for? Full disclosure.

  42. James says:

    dont forget heart health canola oil! there is a difference between natural and man made trans fats.

  43. GarySFBCN says:

    I just looked at the ingredients listed on the box of frozen pizza – no trans fats. But it is from Italy.

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