In an attempt to salvage American arteries and waistlines, the US Federal Drug Association (FDA) has declared all food manufacturers must remove trans fats from their products by 2018.
This comes almost a decade after evidence for harm was compelling enough to require the labelling of trans fats contents on all foods and half a century after scientific research questioned the accumulation of trans fatty acids as artery cloggers.
Removing trans fats from processed foods could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 coronary deaths a year, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), are created by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils and making them solid.
PHOs were seen as a revolutionary step forward in the 1950s as they increased shelf life and flavour and allowed for the rapid and profitable rise of packaged foods. They were also seen as a viable alternative to saturated fats, vilified at the time.
Years on, the realisation that hydrogenation of liquid isn’t all that good for us has dawned slowly on a generation plagued by epidemic levels of non-communicable diseases.
PHOs create inflammation in the arteries, which is linked to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Research from the Harvard School of Public Health and elsewhere indicates that even small amounts cause significant harm: for every 2% of calories from trans fats consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23%.
While both trans fats and saturated fats have the same detrimental effect of raising ‘bad’ low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, only trans fats decrease the production of ‘good’ high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
Since labelling laws came into effect in 2006 around 85% of trans fats have been removed from the food system and the average American consumes around 1 gram of trans fat daily, down from 4.6 grams in 2003. The latest move is seen to be the final nail in the coffin for manufacturers still using the product.
Many snack foods including pop corn, frozen pies and french fries contain trans fats and companies that will be forced to change under this law Betty Crocker’s Buttermilk Biscuits with 2 grams of trans fat per serving and Jumbo Pop Movie Theatre Butter with 5 grams per serving. Other culprits include Duncan Hines yellow cake mix, Blue Bonnet butter and Marie Callender’s “made from scratch” frozen apple pie.
There are huge costs estimated for food manufacturers to research and test new ingredients, reprint labels and repackage products. Costs could be in the range of $200 000 per product according to pharmacology professor Roger Clemens from the University of Southern California.
While the move is seen as a huge step forward for health policy, concerns have been raised over the types of substitutes that may be created to replace trans fats, including palm oil.
Food companies that have built their empires on cheap, stable manufactured fats are going to seek other products equivalent in effect. Trans fats or not, any food coming out of a box, may just put you in one sooner.