You may have seen media reports that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is “banning trans fat” from our food supply. Trans fats are highly correlated with coronary heart disease–our number one killer–so much so that the World Health Organization and other public health bodies have determined that there is no amount that can be considered safe to consume. Trans fats are created in the process of hydrogenation of oil (typically soy bean oil). This year the FDA will revoke the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status of hydrogenized oil, effectively removing the ingredient from all processed foods. So the FDA is banning trans fats, right?
Wrong. Trans fats are found naturally in animal foods such as meat, dairy, poultry, and fish. This comes as no surprise when we understand that hydrogenated oils were created by food manufacturers to mimic the properties of animal fats like lard. You may remember your grandma (or great grandma) saving the grease from cooked bacon in a can to reuse again and again for cooking. Lard is a fully saturated fat; it is solid at room temperature and does not break down or smoke at high temperatures. Many plant-based fats are unsaturated; the molecular structure has fewer
hydrogen atoms, allowing the molecules to slip and slide against each other. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. When public health authorities began to indict saturated fats (found primarily in animal foods) in coronary heart disease and other chronic diseases, processed food manufacturers needed a substitute for creamy, shelf-stable lard. But the substitute had to also appear healthy, so a plant-based oil should be used. Plant-based oils that are naturally high in saturated fat such as coconut oil and palm oil (both solid at room temperature) seemed a good solution but were costly to produce. A process was developed where the unsaturated oil from soybeans is bombarded with hydrogen in order to fill in the missing hydrogen atoms and make the oil solid at room temperature. This process of hydrogenation was a great success for food manufacturers, and Crisco was born in 1911. But in the process of hydrogenation, some twists in the fat molecules occurred. These artificial “trans” fats would turn out to be highly damaging to the human body. A century of American consumption would pass before US government authorities would revoke the GRAS status of hydrogenated oils in our food.
In 2013 the FDA announced that it would likely remove GRAS status of hydrogenated oils for food, and in 2015 it finalized that ruling. But the FDA has made no move to limit the consumption of naturally occurring trans fat found in animal foods. Meat, dairy, poultry, and fish contribute fully 20% of all trans fats consumed by Americans. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, 5% of the fat in a hamburger is trans fat. The fat in cheese is 3% trans fat on average, and butter can be up to 7% trans fat. Hot dogs and ground turkey both contain about 4% trans fats. A single chicken breast contains nearly a gram of trans fat. Do these seemingly low percentages really matter when it comes to the health of Americans? The National Academy of Science (NAS) concludes that they do. NAS was unable to even assign a Tolerable Upper Daily Limit of intake because “any incremental increase in trans fatty acid intake increases coronary heart disease risk.” The truth is that trans fats are unavoidable on non-vegan diets. Knowing this, it is irresponsible to report that the FDA is “banning trans fats.” A nutritional epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health provides the reason more health professionals don’t recommend a vegan diet (text selected from Michael Greger, MD):
‘We can’t tell people to stop eating all meat and all dairy products,’ he said. ‘Well, we could tell people to become vegetarians,’ he added. ‘If we were truly basing this only on science, we would, but it is a bit extreme.’
What seems extreme to me is the irresponsible media coverage by: Huffington Post (“FDA Trans Fat Ban”), TIME
(“Why the FDA Banned Trans Fat”), CBS News (“FDA Bans Trans Fat in Food Supply”), The Washington Post (“FDA Moves to Ban Trans Fat from US Food Supply”), and others. The FDA’s action is laudable in that hydrogenated oils will no longer be found in processed foods, but in order to meet the public health guidelines for trans fat consumption Americans will need to drastically reduce their consumption of the animal foods that contain trans fats. And the American public has a right to know.