By the early 1990s, scientific evidence was overwhelming that the artificial fat known as “trans” fat was a huge risk factor for heart disease, and in 2006, the FDA required food manufacturers to include the trans fat content on product labels. U.S. consumers have reduced their intake of the artery-hardening substance, but it’s still such a health threat that last week the feds decreed that it be eliminated altogether from processed foods.
Food companies have three years to comply, but from where we sit, that’s a pretty generous interval. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the food industry has known since at least 1999 that artificial trans fat was dangerous and should be eliminated.
As pointed out by Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI, “Labeling alone stimulated many to eliminate trans fat. After lawsuits against companies such as Kraft, McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King, additional trans fat was taken out of the food supply.”
Jacobson called the removal of trans fat from the food supply a “landmark public health victory that is saving tens of thousands of lives per year.” So why wait three years to do what’s pretty clearly doable a lot sooner?
Trans fat is produced industrially as partially hydrogenated oils. That means hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, enabling it to remain solid at room temperature. “Partially hydrogenated” oil is useful in the commercial food industry because it gives food a longer shelf life; the oil doesn’t spoil as quickly.
But what’s good for business isn’t good for your heart.
Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist, epidemiologist and dean of the nutrition policy and science school at Tufts University, told NPR, “There’s really not any other fat that has this constellation of harmful effects”; trans fat raises bad cholesterol, lowers good cholesterol and increases inflammation, all of which harm blood vessels.
Last week, the journal PLoS One published a study of adults showing an association between a higher consumption of trans fat and a diminished ability to recall words. So in addition to clear threats to your cardiovascular system, eating a lot of trans fat might compromise some neurological functions, like memory.
The popularity of trans fats grew as replacements for more natural but heart-unhealthy ingredients like lard, which, as in the form of Crisco, commonly were used to make baked goods like pie crusts flakey. Trans fats could replicate most of the “mouthfeel” lard afforded, and was thought to be better for you.
Other foods that often contain trans fats are margarine, microwave popcorn and fried dishes at restaurants.
Even before the FDA imposed the labeling requirement, according to NPR, many food companies eliminated trans fats in anticipation of a ban. The Grocery Manufacturers Association said the food industry has reduced its use of it by more than 86 percent, and now even Crisco is made without partially hydrogenated oils.
Still, we eat too much, and trans fat content can be deceptive on food labels. Products are allowed to claim zero grams of trans fat on the label even if they contain as much as 0.5 grams of it. Products with higher levels are featured on CSPI’s Trans Fat Wall of Shame Pinterest board; you should refrain from eating them if you care about your heart’s health.
For more information about dietary fat, see Patrick’s newsletter, “Saturated Fat: The Good, the Bad and the In-Between.”