FDA Bans Trans Fats, Leaves Void in Food Industry

Maia Welbel July 8, 2015

After years of mount­ing evi­dence, the ill effects of par­tial­ly hydro­genat­ed oils (PHOs) became clear enough for the FDA, on June 16th, to order they be removed from the food sup­ply with­in three years. PHOs, bet­ter known as trans fats, are bad for the heart. Their replace­ment remains any­one’s guess.

The opti­mal lev­el of trans fat intake, accord­ing to the Insti­tute of Med­i­cine, is no trans fat intake at all. This might come as (but prob­a­bly shouldn’t) a sur­prise — nutri­tion sci­en­tists have been sound­ing the alarm on chem­i­cal­ly altered lipids for decades. What’s note­wor­thy, in hind­sight, is the amount of time it has tak­en pol­i­cy to catch up with the data. 

PHOs are no longer con­sid­ered to be Gen­er­al­ly Rec­og­nized as Safe,” a des­ig­na­tion that has allowed a num­ber of dan­ger­ous sub­stances to reside qui­et­ly in the food sup­ply with­out explic­it FDA approval. The FDA esti­mates that a total ban on trans fats could pre­vent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year.

Trans fats are formed by treat­ing liq­uid oil with hydro­gen gas to turn it into a sol­id. The product’s tex­ture resem­bles but­ter or lard, and it has his­tor­i­cal­ly been used as a cheap sub­sti­tute for these ingre­di­ents. PHOs made their domes­tic debut dur­ing World War I, when ani­mal fats were scarce. Proc­ter and Gam­ble intro­duced Crisco as an eco­nom­i­cal alter­na­tive,” which, thanks to hydro­gena­tion tech­nol­o­gy, would stay in sol­id form year-round, regard­less of tem­per­a­ture.” It kept piecrusts nice and flaky.

The pub­lic began to express skep­ti­cism over trans fat con­sump­tion in the 1990s, when a Har­vard study revealed that trans fats were asso­ci­at­ed with an increased risk of heart dis­ease. Accord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, con­sum­ing trans fats increas­es low-den­si­ty lipopro­tein (“bad” cho­les­terol), which con­tributes to coro­nary heart dis­ease. Trans fats also may decrease lev­els of high-den­si­ty lipopro­tein (“good” cho­les­terol). Although they enhance the tex­ture and shelf life of cer­tain foods, trans fats offer no nutri­tion­al ben­e­fit to the consumer.

In 2006, the FDA man­dat­ed that trans fat con­tent be labeled on the prod­uct, prompt­ing a num­ber of com­pa­nies to elim­i­nate its use alto­geth­er. That same year, New York City banned trans fats from any food sold by restau­rants and bak­eries. Cal­i­for­nia, Cleve­land, and Philadel­phia did the same soon after. Respond­ing to ris­ing pub­lic con­cern over an ingre­di­ent that could be cost­ing thou­sands of lives a year, fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Burg­er King sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduced trans fat con­tent in their menu items. Pol­i­cy action worked: the FDA esti­mates that con­sump­tion of trans fats decreased by 78 per­cent from 2003 to 2012.

Mar­ket Pushback

Processed food pro­duc­ers prompt­ly found a loop­hole in the label­ing law. Thanks to a sneaky round­ing rule,” firms could label their prod­ucts as con­tain­ing zero grams trans fat if they con­tained less than half a gram per serv­ing. Since the com­pa­nies them­selves deter­mine serv­ing size, they are able to con­ceal poten­tial­ly sig­nif­i­cant quan­ti­ties of trans fats with­out inform­ing consumers.

A total ban, how­ev­er, will be hard­er to evade, and processed food man­u­fac­tur­ers argued stren­u­ous­ly against any such ruling.

Gen­er­al Mills, a com­pa­ny that uses PHOs in many of its prod­ucts, sub­mit­ted com­ments on the FDA’s pro­pos­al assert­ing that because most of their PHO use is sole­ly for ease of pro­cess­ing, their prod­ucts con­tain very small amounts of trans fats per serv­ing. Thus, they main­tained, the com­pa­ny should be able to main­tain its cur­rent PHO lev­els so as not to have to alter their pro­duc­tion process. Oth­er lead­ing food com­pa­nies such as Nestlé and ConA­gra offered sim­i­lar arguments.

The Gro­cery Man­u­fac­tur­ers Asso­ci­a­tion (GMA) con­curs, cit­ing chew­ing gum as an exam­ple of a prod­uct in which PHOs are essen­tial in pro­duc­tion, but con­tribute very lit­tle trans fat to the food itself. (PHOs are used as soft­en­ers and tex­tur­iz­ers, but gum is not swal­lowed so only minute amounts are ingest­ed). The GMA argues that PHO-derived emul­si­fiers, which sta­bi­lize and main­tain tex­ture, are ubiq­ui­tous” in processed foods such as ice cream and mar­garine. Ban­ning these emul­si­fiers, they say, would cause sig­nif­i­cant man­u­fac­tur­ing issues with­out any pub­lic health benefit.”

The Nation­al Con­fec­tion­ers Asso­ci­a­tion point­ed out that a PHO ban could cause trade dis­rup­tions” such as recalls and com­pro­mised mar­ket relationships.

Despite such con­cerns, the FDA has held firm on their resolve to out­law trans fats.

A New So(y)lution?

Agro-chem­i­cal giants Mon­san­to and DuPont have iden­ti­fied an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cap­i­tal­ize on this rad­i­cal shift in food pro­cess­ing via a genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied (GM) soy­bean. The two firms are work­ing on silenc­ing the gene for an enzyme that con­verts ole­ic fat­ty acid into linole­ic acid, there­by result­ing in a trans fat free oil.

Amer­i­can Soy­bean Asso­ci­a­tion (ASA) chair­man, Ray Gaess­er, says that oil from ole­ic soy­beans could replace a sub­stan­tial por­tion of the PHOs cur­rent­ly on the mar­ket. The ASA antic­i­pates that three years will be enough time for the soy­bean indus­try to start pro­duc­ing high-ole­ic soy­beans in suf­fi­cient quantities.

ASA pres­i­dent Wade Cow­an describes soy­bean oil as sus­tain­able” and broad­ly avail­able” in addi­tion to being free of trans fat and low in sat­u­rat­ed fat, mak­ing it a bet­ter option — in their eyes — than import­ed prod­ucts such as palm oil that have neg­a­tive­ly impact­ed soy­bean farmers.

Palm oil pro­duces the high­est yield of any oil crop in the world. It con­tains no trans fat and has been increas­ing­ly used to replace PHOS, result­ing in a more than dou­bling of imports between 2007 and 2014.

While it is not a PHO, palm oil does come with its own host of issues, most notably its asso­ci­a­tion with child labor, defor­esta­tion and species extinction.

Palm oil can be found on the ingre­di­ent list of almost half of all pack­aged foods pro­duced in the Unit­ed States. Most of it is import­ed from Indone­sia, where rain­forests are slashed and burned to make way for palm oil plan­ta­tions. As demand for the com­mod­i­ty increas­es, the future of the orang­utan and oth­er rain­for­est species looks ever bleaker.

Enter the ASA, with their GM soy­bean oil that could take the place of destruc­tive imports and place mar­ket share back in the hands of Amer­i­can farm­ers. But is soy­bean oil the best replace­ment for PHOs? Soy­beans are cul­ti­vat­ed inten­sive­ly through­out the Mid­west using chem­i­cal-dri­ven mono­cul­ture, a prac­tice that accel­er­ates soil ero­sion and con­tributes to ground­wa­ter con­t­a­m­i­na­tion among oth­er envi­ron­men­tal detri­ments. Data on the health effects of soy­bean oil is incon­clu­sive. While it’s appar­ent that soy­bean oil is a bet­ter option than any PHO, oils high in mono-unsat­u­rat­ed fats such as olive oil may offer greater health ben­e­fits because they decrease lev­els of bad cholesterol.

The con­firmed pres­ence of harm in our food sup­ply brings to mind the advice of food jour­nal­ist Michael Pol­lan, who sug­gests focus­ing on larg­er dietary pat­terns and the val­ue of whole foods. When a sin­gle serv­ing of Pop Secret Extra But­ter pop­corn con­tains a whop­ping five grams of trans fat — there are three serv­ings in a bag — it might be time to rethink not just movie night but food in general.

Maia Wel­bel is an intern at Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. She is a ris­ing junior at Pomona Col­lege where she stud­ies envi­ron­men­tal analy­sis and dance. She is also a con­trib­u­tor to The Stu­dent Life.
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