Doctors, nutritional coaches and dietitians are rejoicing everywhere after news broke recently of the FDA mandate on all food manufacturers to rid their products of partially hydrogenated oils—the key source of trans fats present in the American diet—in 3 years. The pivotal step forward here is the removal of all artificial trans fats from the country’s food supply.
At one time, trans fats were once deemed “healthy”—or a healthier alternative to other oils. Partially hydrogenated oils are a man-made fat, developed to “protect us” from the health effects of butter, but it turns out this substance actually acts like butter in our bodies.
So what exactly are trans fats? Also called, trans fatty acids, these are formed when food makers turn liquid oils into solid fats. The process by which these are created is called hydrogenation, where vegetable oils are converted to solid fats by adding hydrogen atoms—a process attributed to German chemist Wilhelm Normann.
Of course, it’s no surprise food manufacturers fell in love with this new process, since it increases the shelf life and flavor stability of food.
Believe it or not, scientists began investigating the health effects of trans fats as early as the 1950s. It has taken decades of research, debates, and lobbying to reach the point we reached Tuesday. Public opinion around trans fats has shifted with the growing amount of evidence that points to the very real fact that it increases the risk for chronic diseases. Understanding this very real fact didn’t come about until a paramount study in 1990 published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which showed that these fats raised LDL levels (the bad cholesterol) and lowered HDL levels (the good cholesterol).
An increase in LDL levels is a major proponent for heart attack and stroke. These fats contribute to clogged arteries which are a sure sign of heart disease. Some research has also suggested that trans fats increase blood levels of triglycerides—a fat-protein and artery-clogging compound. To make matters more concerning, researchers haven’t been able to understand the safest amount of trans fats to consume. As this growing body of evidence was released, the FDA began requiring food makers label trans fats on all packaging.
2006 was the first year the FDA required food makers to disclose trans fats on all food packaging nutritional labels. Some states and cities have even banned the use of trans fats in restaurants. New York City prohibited the substance in 2013. The change in policy has paid off, spurring a 78 percent decrease in consumption of trans fats from 2003-2012, according to the FDA.
Consumers need to distinguish between natural trans fats and synthetic or artificial trans fats. These types of fats are found naturally in animal products in small quantities, including butter, milk, beef and pork. Processed foods containing partially hydrogenated oils (or artificial trans fats)include breakfast cereals, salad dressings, granola bars, chips, fried foods, baked goods and candies. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that the average American consumes about 1.3 grams of trans fats per day.
Eliminating artificial trans fats from our food supply is a major win in the battle for food safety and even obesity. The FDA uses a system, allowing food makers to include ingredients in foods so long as no health concerns exist. The underlying problem with trans fats has always been these food additives may not be fully tested or reviewed by the FDA because manufacturers aren’t always disclosing them. To gain a deeper understanding, the National Resources Defense Council conducted an investigation and found 275 chemicals in food that were never reported to the FDA. This puts public health at risk, in the same way as the un-reported ingredients and chemicals present or not in vitamins, as we’ve spoken about. Bottom line is if the FDA doesn’t know about it, they can’t regulate it properly.
The hope with this new mandate is consumers will start incorporating more healthy fats in their diet, in place of these trans fats. Foods like avocados, nuts and olive oil are delicious and essential for numerous body functions, including cell membrane repair, body warmth, organ protection and energy
Below are some tips to help you choose healthy fats; remember, though, that even healthy fats are high in calories, please consume in moderation.
- Focus your food choices towards monounsaturated fat (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) and away from saturated and trans fats. When grocery shopping, be sure to read the nutrition label carefully and only choose foods where 0 trans fat is listed. Also try to avoid “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.”
- Use liquid plant oils when cooking and baking. Olive and canola oils are much healthier to cook and bake with, respectively, than butter.
- Incorporate at least one serving of omega-3 fats every day. Omega-3’s are found in salmon, tuna, walnuts, canola oil, flaxseed oil and spinach.
- Reduce consumption of red meat and dairy. These foods are high in saturated fat, so actively choose leaner cuts and consume them in moderation. Chicken, fish and nuts are good substitutes and provide healthier sources of fats. Instead of adding cheese to your sandwiches or salads, opt for avocado slices instead.
BanTransFats.com is a great online resource and was a huge movement for the ban of trans fats. Even though it’s not updated anymore, there’s a lot of key information detailed there regarding studies on the health effects of trans fats and health information that remain true and impactful today. This website just scratches the surface. As I’ve said before, the best thing you can do is educate yourself on what you’re eating. This and other advances in food supply and safety has sparked a new approach to nutrition, empowering patients and consumers to ask tough questions about the food they’re eating, be it at the grocery store, a restaurant or even at home cooking. Read the nutritional facts on all your food packages. Believe it or not, it’s becoming the coolest (and healthiest) thing you can do. Even something as simple as chicken broth should be analyzed. How much sodium is in it? How many grams of sugar, and so on.
Consumers need to take back their health, especially when it comes to what we put in our bodies. FDA mandates like this continue to force transparency from all food makers, but at the end of the day, your health is in your hands.
As expected, medical experts all across America are praising this new mandate from the FDA, arguably one of the best in regards to food safety, that we’ve had it years. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention projects that avoiding these artificial trans fats could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year. I’d say that’s a win-win.
Dr. Samadi is the chairman of urology and chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital and professor of urology at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is a medical correspondent for the Fox News Channel and the chief medical correspondent for AM970 in New York City.