What the coming ban on partially hydrogenated oil means for you

The FDA is telling manufacturers to cut the trans fat

Published: August 27, 2015 06:00 AM

In the nutrition world, few food components are as widely reviled as trans fats, which hide out in chips, crackers, and countless other processed and deep-fried foods, and have been proved to increase your risk of heart disease. In June, the Food and Drug Administration announced that manufacturers have until 2018 to rid their products of the primary source of trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). It’s an important step that the agency estimates will save $140 billion in health care and other costs nationwide over 20 years.

Here’s the potential impact on your kitchen cabinet and your health:

The trouble with trans fat

PHOs are created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, making it solid at room temperature and less likely to spoil. Like saturated fat, trans fat not only increases your blood levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol but also lowers HDL (good) cholesterol. It may also cause inflammation and lead to heart attack or stroke. Research has also found links to type 2 diabetes and problems with memory and other cognitive functions.

Right now the FDA permits food manufacturers to label foods containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving as containing 0 grams, which means that certain products purporting to be trans fat–free may, in fact, have some.

By June 2018, PHOs cannot even be included as an ingredient. That will change the makeup of thousands of products whose manufacturers had been rounding down on nutrition labels.

Are you concerned about trans fat?

Tell us what you do to avoid trans fats in the comments below.

The new rule and your taste buds

If you haven’t yet noticed a change, it probably means very little: Many processed-food manufacturers have already dropped PHOs from their products without any noticeable difference in flavor or texture. (Between 2003 and 2012 Americans’ trans-fat consumption fell by 78 percent, according to an FDA estimate.)

The new rule and your health

Early research yields hopeful results: One European study estimated that a ban on trans fats in restaurants in New York City and six counties resulted in 12 fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease per 100,000 people and a health care savings of $3 million per 100,000 people each year.

According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, some companies will switch to alternatives such as palm oil and palm kernel oil—either alone or combined with liquid canola, sunflower, or soybean oil. Both palm and palm kernel oils are high in saturated fat, which raises bad cholesterol levels. Some companies are developing soybeans—through conventional crossbreeding as well as by genetic engineering in a lab—that produce trans fat-free oil that is also lower in saturated fat than most typical trans-fat alternatives. But GMOs may lead to a variety of health and environmental problems, our experts say, and will carry no GMO labeling.

Trans fats’ long goodbye

Companies can petition for a specific use of PHOs in their products post-June 2018, as long as the additive meets the FDA’s safety standards. (An FDA spokesperson told us that if the specific use is approved, the agency will publish an additive regulation.) For now your best bet is to keep checking ingredients lists for PHOs and, of course, to avoid processed, high-fat foods in general—as well as limiting beef, cheese, and full-fat dairy products, where small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats will still be found.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.



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