In a culmination of twenty years of research, the FDA has declared its preliminary intent to remove partially hydrogenated oils from the generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list of foods and food additives. If this decision is finalized, partially hydrogenated oils, or "trans fats," would be completely removed from the food industry, placing the burden on the manufacturers to prove to the FDA that the presence of trans fats would be safe to eat in their products.
"I would say it's about time," said K.C. Hayes, professor of biology in nutrition at Brandeis University. "The smoking gun has been there since the early 1990s when people began to realize that although the total cholesterol doesn't change that much [after eating trans fats], the LDL/HDL ratios were changing in the opposite direction that you want. The LDL (bad cholesterol) was going up and the HDL (good cholesterol) was going down."
A seminal 1993 study published in The Lancet revealed a striking association with trans fats and coronary heart disease and prompted the FDA to first examine the effects of trans fats on health. In response to this and other concerning research results, the amount of trans fats had to be listed on all Nutrition Facts labels starting in 2006. However, a trans fat label loop hole still exists: if a serving has less than half a gram of trans fat, the trans fat content can be excluded from the label. The CDC predicts that closing this loop hole by removing trans fats from the GRAS list will "prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year."
Plenty of products still include trans fats, such as cookies, crackers, snack foods, and frozen pizza. "If the ingredients on the label include partially hydrogenated soy or vegetable oil, you know that the product still contains up to 499 mg of trans fatty acids. A lot of products have been pushing it right up to the limit," said Hayes, one of the inventors of Smart Balance, an oil-based buttery spread substitute that lacks artificial trans fats.
Hayes's research has focused on trans fats replacements for several decades. "To maintain the same plasticity of trans fats, we needed to use vegetable oil that is saturated, which really left us with two options: palm oil and coconut oil. I started working with palm oil and found much to my surprise that it didn't raise cholesterol nearly as much as something like butter."
Smart balance and other spreads commonly incorporate palm oil as well as oil from canola, soybean, and olive plants. However, the pursuit of the perfect trans fat alternative is far from over, as negative consequences of increased land use for production of these sources, such as the palm oil, on animal habitats are becoming increasingly apparent.
The FDA welcomes any information, in the form of comments or scientific data, towards their final consideration to remove trans fats from the U.S. food industry. This commentary period is open until January 7, 2014.