The countdown is officially on. On Tuesday, U.S. officials announced that food companies have until 2018 to remove all trans fats (currently hiding as partially hydrogenated oils on ingredient lists) from their products.
It’s a good thing, considering it has been a solid year and a half since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deemed that they were not “generally recognized as safe” for human consumption.
“This is a massive win for public health,” said Sam Kass, former advisor for nutrition at the White House and former executive director of Let’s Move! The FDA has estimated that the removal of trans fats from packaged food could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year, according to Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA.
“The eventual elimination of artificial trans fats from the food supply will mean a healthier food supply, fewer heart attacks and heart disease deaths, and a major victory for public health,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in a press release earlier today. The CSPI began petitioning the FDA to require a line for trans fats on Nutrition Facts labels back in 1994. Nine years ago, they started pushing for the FDA to ban trans fats altogether.
So if trans fats are linked to these health problems, why are they still around? Because they're cheap, and they extend the shelf life and stability of packaged foods—a win-win for food manufacturers. So it may come as no surprise that the packaged food industry has already announced they’ll be filing a petition asking the FDA to preserve its ability to use small amounts of artificial trans fat as a "food additive" for certain uses–like keeping the color from leaching out of the sprinkles and into the frosting in ready-made cupcakes and cookies.
Despite the products that hang on to their trans fats, the shift to trans-fat-free food has been ongoing for several years. In fact, the CSPI reports that about 85% of artificial trans fats have already been eliminated from the food industry–great news!–with the remainder still lurking in ready-to-bake pie crusts, canned biscuits, ready-to-use frostings, coffee creamers, baked goods (beware the unassuming newtons and graham crackers of the cookie aisle), and microwave popcorn.
Unfortunately, a new analysis by the Environmental Working Group found that about 27% of the packaged foods found in supermarkets still contain trans fats (with an additional 10% likely to contain them). These 10% may be disguised with a health halo, a claim of "0g of trans fats per serving."
But wait! The product says there are 0g trans fats! Due to a loophole in the food labeling laws, the packaging can tout that the product has zero trans fats as long as the food contains less than 0.5g trans fats per serving. Eat more than one serving, and those fractions of a gram add up quickly.
For all parties involved—the FDA, the CSPI, researchers who initially linked trans fats to heart disease, and even food companies who have already moved to replace trans fats with healthier fats—this is exciting news. As for those cupcakes and cookies, well … that just gives us another reason or two to get back into the kitchen.