On June 16, 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally acted to remove trans fats from domestic food supply. It explained that the decision was based on extensive review of scientific research into the effects of partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils, and a wide public consultation exercise.
The FDA said it had therefore “finalised its determination” that foods containing artificial trans fats – found in partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHOs) – cannot be ‘generally recognised as safe’.
“The FDA’s action on this major source of artificial trans fats demonstrates the agency’s commitment to the heart health of all Americans,” said Acting Commissioner Dr Stephen Ostroff in a statement. “This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”
The FDA has set a compliance period of three years to phase out trans fats. This will allow companies to either reformulate products without PHOs and/or petition the FDA to permit specific uses of PHOs. Following the compliance period, no PHOs can be added to human food unless approved by the FDA.
The FDA will surely not be the last regulator to consider taking this step. In Europe, an opportunity was missed with the EU Food Information to Consumers Regulation, when trans fats were inexplicably given an easy ride. However, Europeans are notoriously health conscious and it is expected that the debate on banning trans fats will resurface.
A big part of removing trans fats is not just about regulation. Countries and industries must promote the safer alternatives to trans fats. Palm oil producers should be finding friends and allies in the scientific community, among businesses and within politics to support this process. It is in everyone’s interests – consumers, businesses and governments – to remove harmful substances from food products.
The US ban offers a big opportunity to the palm oil industry, both in terms of business and marketing. Many scandalously untrue campaigns about palm oil have been pursued in the US and elsewhere in recent years, often funded by domestic oilseed competitors.
These have harmed the commodity’s image in some markets. Recognition of the need to remove trans fats offers an opportunity for Western markets to see palm oil for what it really is: a safe, healthy alternative.
The US food industry will now have to come up with substitute fat formulations that continue to deliver the texture, taste and performance of current food products. Palm oil and palm fractions provide the most viable options in terms of functionality and pricing. The unique composition of palm oil means it is naturally semi-solid and does not require hydrogenation. Its use could also lower food prices, as well as help small farmers growing oil palm in the developing world.
The Malaysian palm oil community has always been a byword for high-quality, responsibly-produced palm oil. In addition to that accolade, we now have the opportunity to make a positive contribution to consumer health in markets across the world.
Palm oil has many benefits – environmental benefits, for its amazing yield, low land-use and productivity; social benefits, for employing small farmers, empowering rural communities, building infrastructure and reducing poverty across the developing world; and health benefits – for its substantial content of Vitamins A and E, and balanced composition of saturated and unsaturated fats.
Harmful health effects
Trans fats have long been recognised as harmful in the US (see page 14). Since Jan 1, 2006, the FDA has ruled that foods must list the trans fats content – but if this amounts to less than 0.5gm per serving, it can be expressed as ‘0gm’ on the label. This means that, even when consumers have chosen products labelled as ‘0 trans’, they have ended up consuming small but additive amounts of trans fats.
Understanding of the toxicity of trans fats has continued to grow in recent years. Researchers at the University of St Louis, Missouri, have identified factors in trans fats that cause hardening within arteries and potentially contribute to auto-immune diseases.
Other health issues associated with any level of trans fats intake include:
– higher body weight gain (probably a trigger to increased obesity);
– increased heart disease through raised ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol and reduced beneficial HDL-cholesterol;
– increased risk of diabetes; and
– impaired foetal development and significantly lower birth weight.
In addition, the negative effects of consuming trans fats include memory loss, according to a study in November 2014 by the American Heart Association (AHA). Participants who were on a high trans-fats diet fared worse in memory tests; it was found that they could also suffer from other reductions in cognitive functions.
Little surprise then, that the AHA has hailed the FDA ban on trans fats as a “historic victory for the nation’s health”.
Road to the US Ban on Trans Fats
Sources: The Washington Post, July 16, 2015; FDA
Trans fats have been around for more than a century, but consumption escalated in the 1940s. Over the years, the substance was found in everything from pizzas to microwave popcorn to pancake mix.
Food manufacturers embraced partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHOs) because they provide desirable taste and texture, extend the shelf-life of processed foods, and are cheaper than animal-based fats such as lard or butter.
As recently as the 1980s, many scientists and public health advocates said that PHOs, which occur when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil to make a more solid substance, were actually healthier than more natural saturated fats.
By the mid-1990s, as more studies showed that trans fats were a key culprit in the rising rate of heart disease, public opinion began to shift.
• In 1994, with dangers posed by trans fats becoming clearer, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to require that the substance be listed on nutrition labels.
• In 2002, the Institute of Medicine found that there was “no safe level of trans fatty acids and people should eat as little of them as possible”.
• As a result, intake among Americans declined from 4.6gm of trans fats per day in 2003 to about 1gm per day in 2012. The FDA estimated that consumption of trans fats fell by 78% over this period.
Cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia also imposed bans on artificial trans fats in restaurant food.
• Since 2006, food companies have been required to list trans fats content information on the Nutrition Facts label. If a serving contains less than 0.5gm, the content is expressed as 0gm.
• In May 2007, Montgomery County became the first county in the nation to approve a ban on PHOs in restaurants, supermarket bakeries and delis.
• Cognizant of consumer demand and the growing body of research about the harm caused by trans fats, food manufacturers have steadily removed the ingredient from the majority of products in recent years.
• Some of the country’s largest restaurant chains, from McDonald’s to Taco Bell, from Chick-fil-A to Dunkin’ Donuts, have cut trans fats from their menus. Wal-Mart has told its food suppliers to eliminate trans fats.
• In late 2013, the FDA took the first steps toward banning the substance, calling it a threat to public health. In a proposal, the agency said trans fats no longer should be among ingredients in the largely unregulated category known as ‘generally recognised as safe’.
• On July 16, 2015, the FDA finalised that proposal, saying trans fats are no longer safe for use in human food.
Companies that want to use trans fats in the future will have to get explicit approval from the FDA and meet rigorous safety standards showing that such use would cause no harm to public health — a steep bar given the mountain of scientific evidence that now exists about the dangers that the substance poses.