So long, trans fat

FDA orders partially hydrogenated oils removed from food

Published: June 16, 2015 01:45 PM

You know trans fat, the stuff margarine is made of and fast food restaurants often drop their fries and doughnuts into? The fat that increases your risk of heart attack and stroke? Well, soon you'll be able to stop worrying about it.  

That's because today the Food and Drug Administration announced that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat, will be removed from the list of ingredients that are "generally recognized as safe." Food companies will have three years to either remove partially hydrogenated oils from their products, or petition the FDA for permission to use those oils.

"Today's announcement is an important one for consumers' health," said William Wallace, policy analyst with Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. "We applaud the FDA for re-evaluating its position based on the current weight of scientific evidence and urge food manufacturers to phase out all remaining trans fat as quickly as possible. Consumer Reports has voiced concerns about the connection between trans fat and heart disease for more than 20 years."

Trans fat comes from vegetable oils that have additional hydrogen molecules attached to them. The original idea was to give the fat the stability and mouthfeel of butter, but without the cholesterol or saturated fat. As it turned out, trans fat was also less expensive than butter and extended the shelf life of packaged products. But it also turned out to be just as bad, if not worse, for your heart and your health as saturated fats are.

Like saturated fat, trans fat raises levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, but it also lowers levels of HDL (good) cholesterol at the same time, so it’s a double whammy on your heart. And it might also cause inflammation, which could pose additional risks to your heart and throughout your body.

Food manufacturers were required to list trans fat on the nutrition facts label in 2006, and as a result many switched from partially hydrogenated oils to other fats in their products—up to a point. Even products that say Trans Fat Free or list 0 grams of trans fat on the label can legally contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat. It may not sound like much, but if you ate several products that contained this level of trans fat, you could still be consuming much more than you think. The Institute of Medicine says that there is no known safe level of trans fat consumption.

You'll have to keep scrutinizing ingredients lists during this phasing-out period, but the FDA anticipates that many manufacturers will remove partially hydrogenated oils from their products in advance of the three-year compliance date.

—Trisha Calvo

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