The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed to ban trans fats from the food industry and replace these with healthier types of oils. Many believe this will trigger some scrambling and opposition from manufacturers and restaurant chains, but ultimately it will be a positive step towards improving the nation’s health. The FDA estimates that totally eliminating trans fats could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths due to heart disease in the states each year.
What are trans fats?
Fats are often categorised as the good (healthy, unsaturated fats e.g. rapeseed oil), the bad (saturated fat e.g. fat on meat) and the ugly (trans fats). Trans fat is a specific type of fat that is formed when liquid oils are turned into solid fats, such as shortening or stick margarine. During an industrial process called hydrogenation — hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to increase the shelf life and flavor stability of foods. The result of the process is the production of trans fat.
Food manufacturers first adopted partially hydrogenated vegetable oils the source of trans fats as a substitute for butter, due to health concerns over the saturated fats contained in butter. Using trans fats to make a cracker gives it flakiness and “adds a buttery taste without putting butter in it and trans fats also can be used to add a creamy taste. Trans fats became popular because of their versatility in food production. They make processed foods “shelf-stable,” able to stay on supermarket shelves for months without going bad. Fast food restaurants loved trans fats because they could be used repeatedly in commercial deep fryers without having to be replaced. Other foods that contain trans fats include margarine, prepared desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, biscuits, pastries etc. The food industry has progressed to the point where trans fats can be replaced with healthier options, with no effect on food’s taste or texture. There is currently an opportunity to look at some of those healthier oils, rapeseed or other vegetable oils which could be incorporated into foods that traditionally used trans fats, without affecting taste.
Why are trans fats so unhealthy?
Trans fats have gained a notorious reputation because they simultaneously increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels which can cause heart disease and strokes. Trans fats also cause inflammation which is not only a root cause of heart disease, but other chronic diseases such as cancers.
The use of trans fats has decreased as public knowledge of their health risks increased. New York City banned trans fats in restaurants in 2006. In addition studies have found that fast-food chains have significantly decreased the amount of trans fats used in their chips. Food manufacturers also have been limiting the use of trans fats, most notably since the FDA required in 2006 that trans fats be listed on the Nutrition Facts labels placed on nearly all food products.
There are some concerns moving forward, mostly related to what food manufacturers will use as a substitute for trans fats. What we wouldn’t want the food industry to do is go back to butter, because saturated fats have health risks. Consumers shouldn’t assume that a trans fat-free food automatically will be good for them. If the trans fats are removed from a biscuit loaded with sugar, you still have a biscuit loaded with sugar. Let’s hope that this movement is soon applied to Europe and that more healthy type fats replace the trans fats in processed foods in the future.