On Tuesday, June 16th, the Food and Drug Administration announced its official crackdown of trans fat in processed food.
Deeming trans fats unsafe for human consumption, the FDA has given companies three years (which still seems like a long time to us) to remove these chemicals from their foods or face strict circumstances. Since 2006, the FDA has mandated the labeling of trans fat content on food packaging. Due to the general public’s new knowledge of what was in their food, trans fat consumption dropped significantly. With the move to cut it out totally, the FDA hopes to to lower the number of annual heart attacks and cases of cardiovascular disease.
What are trans fats?
The reason trans fats are so terrible is because they’re formed in a chemical process called “hydrogenation”. Yep, that’s right. They’re chemicals. Rarely do they occur naturally, and even then then quantity is exponentially small. Maybe you’ve heard on TV commercials the mention of “partially hydrogenated oils”. This should sound familiar. The process of hydrogenation is as gnarly as the name would have you to believe. Hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oil, which then goes through a reconfiguration of its fat cell structure to turn the fat into a solid. Yeah, ew.
On that note, what foods have trans fats?
Most fast food places use partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in their deep fryer. (Side note on grossness: this type of oil doesn’t have to be changed as often and can be used in the same fryer for weeks. Ick.) Therefore, through the deep frying, the food is absorbing a large amount of trans fat. Shortening, an ingredient mostly used in baking, is made out of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Due to prior FDA regulations, if a food had less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, it could legally be labeled as having “0 grams” of trans fat. Naturally, this can add up if you’re eating multiple servings, passing the recommended maximum of 2g of trans fat per day. Even if the nutritional content says zero, always check the ingredients of whatever you’re eating for partially hydrogenated oils.
What makes them different from other fats?
Mono and polyunsaturated fats are probably other types of fats you’ve heard of. These are often referenced as “good fats”. While they shouldn’t be eaten in excess, they are important in how the body breaks down food. Trans fats increase low density lipoprotein (the bad cholesterol) and decrease high density lipoprotein (the good cholesterol). This leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. On the flip side of that, mono and polyunsaturated fats regulate cholesterol while benefiting insulin levels and blood sugar control. These fats are found in foods such as nuts and avocados.
What does this mean for fast foods places?
This three year grace period the FDA is allowing is set up for companies to reformulate their products. The FDA is even predicting that most companies will fully eliminate trans fats from their recipes before the deadline is up, due to already mounting health concerns by the general public. If a company wishes to retain some partially hydrogenated oil in their recipes for whatever reason, they have to apply to do so at the discretion of the FDA.
These are huge steps towards the increase of general health and nutrition, but will it be enough? Although we’re cutting this harmful fat out of fast food meals and mass produced items, there is the potential for the reverse effect. It may only encourage people to eat out more because their food is “seemingly healthier”. Yes, it’s great that partially hydrogenated oils are now out of the food we eat regularly, but this does not automatically lead to healthy choices on the part of the consumer. The FDA’s next step should be public education on nutritional needs so we can learn why some fats are worse than others, and how to shape our meals off of them.
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