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The Food and Drug Administration initiated a process today which will most likely result in the banning of trans fats in all food products sold in the US. For over a decade, scientific consensus has been building over the dangers of trans fats which are used to improve the taste and texture of many processed food products, and to increase product shelf life. The artery-clogging properties of trans fats have been shown to increase levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol, while lowering levels of HDL “good” cholesterol.

A diet high in trans fats results in an elevated risk of heart disease and strokes.

In 2006 the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to provide information about trans fats on nutritional labels. Food manufacturers, alerted to the danger of using this food additive, have since been reducing their use of trans fats and seeking alternatives in product formulations. According to Leon Bruner, chief science officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, food manufacturers have voluntarily lowered the amounts of trans fats in their products by over 73 percent since 2005.

“While consumption of potentially harmful trans fat has declined over the last two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern”

-FDA commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg

“While consumption of potentially harmful trans fat has declined over the last two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern,” said FDA commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg. She said eliminating trans fats in the American diet could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.

While trans fats can be found naturally at low levels in some foods such as meat and dairy, artificial trans fats are the target of FDA regulation. Artificial trans fats are formed when cooking oil is hydrogenated which makes the oil more solid (known as hardening). This hydrogenated fat is used for frying or as an ingredient in processed foods.

Foods which typically contain trans fats and saturated fats are:

  • Cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and breads such as hamburger buns

  • Vegetable shortening and some brands of stick margarine

  • Donuts, French fries, chicken nuggets, hard taco shells and other fried foods

  • Chips, microwave popcorn and some candy

  • Frozen dinners

Consumers are advised to read the nutrition labels on foods to determine the presence of trans fats, since some food brands have developed new formulations for some of the products typically high in trans fats. For example, MacDonald’s stopped using trans fats in its French fries over 10 years ago.

Current FDA labelling regulations allow foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fats to be sold as “trans fat free” or “zero trans fats”. If you see this on the food label, be sure to check the ingredients list which will be included on the label. If the words “partially hydrogenated” appear, the food contains trans fats.

Even when substitutes for trans fats have been provided, processed foods are still relatively less nutritious than whole foods. The American Heart Association advocates a diet containing a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole-grain products, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, legumes, poultry, lean meats, and fish at least twice a week.

Today’s announcement by the FDA in a big step forward in nutritional awareness, and brings a new sense of urgency to remove the artery-clogging trans fats from the US food supply.