In the year since the 2006 FDA labeling regulations, much progress has been made in ridding foods of dangerous fats. But is there still more work to be done?
The trans fat issue is still hot. In fact, it’s barely cooled down since the FDA began requiring food packages to list levels of trans fat on January 1, 2006. Concerns linger over the new villain of the fat world—from trying to replace trans fats in the food industry to banishing them in restaurants. Unlike many foods or ingredients that proved to be problematic for health, artificial trans fats have essentially no merit in the food supply and can be substituted with other fats and oils. Thus, trans fats have fallen into the ranks of past public health nuisances such as cigarettes and lead paint.
Even at very low levels, trans fat in the diet can be dangerous. The average intake of trans fats is estimated at 2.6% of daily energy intake. The negative effects of trans fat on blood lipids start as low as 0.5% of daily energy intake. Although small amounts of trans fat occur in meats and dairy foods, 80% of trans fat in the diet comes from partially hydrogenated oils, which has harmful effects on blood lipids, promotes inflammation, and causes blood vessel abnormalities.1
The good news is that people have heard the trans fat message loud and clear. “Consumers are very aware of trans fats. They tend to see things in black and white; good or bad. Trans fats are now bad,” says Jeannie Moloo, PhD, RD, nutrition consultant and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. In January 2006, Harris Interactive conducted a survey of 1,040 U.S. adults and found that 46% of adults were familiar with the impact of trans fats on their health and 79% of those who were familiar were very or extremely concerned that these fats are a health hazard.2
The Big Apple Takes on Trans Fat
Recently, trans fat made headlines for being banned in restaurants in New York City, a haven for fine dining. But New York City wasn’t the first to take on this task. Denmark limited trans fat to 2% of the fat content of foods two years ago. And in Tiburon, Calif., each of its 19 restaurants uses trans fat-free cooking oil for frying. Tiburon restaurant owners proudly display heart-shaped stickers in their windows proclaiming their use of trans fat-free oils.
Much of the country is ogling New York after the New York City Board of Health voted to phase out artificial trans fat in restaurants by July 1, 2008. Recognizing the challenges of replacing trans fats, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) proposed a phase-out period of 18 months for trans fat-containing oils, shortenings, and margarines for applications other than frying and spreading and for deep-frying of yeast doughs and cake batters. The deadline for removing artificial trans fat from oils, shortenings, and margarines used for most frying and all spreading would be six months.3
On October 30, 2006, a public hearing was held on the proposed amendment, during which Harvard Professor Dariush Mozaffarian reported, “By the most conservative estimates, based only on the effects of trans fats on blood total cholesterol and HDL [high-density lipoprotein] cholesterol levels, 6% of heart attacks in the U.S. are due to consumption of artificial trans fats. In NYC, this corresponds to approximately 1,400 deaths from heart attacks each year.”3
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, Food Products Association, local restaurants, and private citizens expressed concerns at the hearing regarding adequate supply, consumer acceptance, changes in taste, reduced variety of menu items, and the potential for customers to travel outside of the city to dine out. Rusty Coco, owner of Jason’s Deli, a 130-location chain operating in 20 states, stated at the hearing that his restaurants had trans fat in 47 ingredients and 80 menu items five years ago. He was able to remove trans fat from all products and believed other restaurants could follow suit.3
To help facilitate the transition, DOHMH will offer assistance by expanding the trans fat module in the food handlers’ training course, developing additional materials on how to transition to healthier alternatives, implementing training courses for food safety inspectors and restaurant personnel, offering a technical assistance helpline, and developing additional support materials, such as a zero gram trans fat product source list and a brochure on replacing trans fat in baking and frying.3
“The move to get rid of trans fats is taking place, and the restaurant industry is procrastinating. The technology is there; it’s time to get up to speed. I think other cities will take things into their own hands and do the same thing as New York,” says New York City-based dietitian Fern Gale Estrow, MS, RD, CDN, who testified at the DOHMH hearing. Now Chicago is looking at its regulations on restaurant trans fats and Canada may follow with a nationwide ban.
Taboo in Food Products
Much progress has been made within the food industry to rid products of trans fat as some argue that partially hydrogenated oils should be completely removed from the food supply to protect consumers once and for all. It was downright encouraging for nutrition professionals to see how quickly the food industry could respond to a public health issue. And consumers were pleased to find that their favorite products—from Goldfish crackers to Oreo cookies—tasted virtually the same in their new zero trans fat form.
But we haven’t crossed the finish line yet. While many food products have eliminated trans fat on the nutritional lineup, there are still some that have done little to reduce their trans fat toll. For instance, Pop-Secret Movie Theater Butter Microwave Popcorn has 6 grams of trans fat per serving.
Supermarket chains have also been battling trans fat in their aisles. While Whole Foods never sold foods with partially hydrogenated oil, Wegmans has been making gradual changes for years, and Raley’s and Giant chains have asked suppliers to make changes. Nine of 11 supermarket chains surveyed by The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reported that they have made changes or plan on doing so for store-brand products.4
Trans Fat Labeling
Despite the FDA’s ruling on trans fat labeling, consumers need to be aware of potential loopholes. The FDA allows manufacturers to round down a trans fat level of below 0.5 grams and list it as zero on the label. If consumers are taking in multiple nearly 0.5 gram servings per day, these numbers can add up, especially when the Institute of Medicine concluded that the only safe amount of trans fat intake is zero.
Recently, the CSPI reported that many popular vegetable oil spreads that claim “0 grams trans fat” on their labels actually contain trans fat, according to laboratory analyses. Some of these products include Shedd’s Spread Country Crock with 0.4 grams of trans fat per serving, Take Control with 0.4 grams of trans fat per serving, Blue Bonnet Homestyle with 0.3 grams of trans fat per serving, Promise Stick with 0.3 grams of trans fat per serving, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Original with 0.3 grams of trans fat per serving.5
Consumers need to watch for partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredient list as a clue to trans fat content in products. In addition, the ingredients “margarine” or “shortening” on an ingredient list can also indicate the potential for trans fat content.
On the Menu
Despite New York City’s good example, there has been much resistance by many restaurants to go trans fat-free. The National Restaurant Association, along with other industry organizations, opposes trans fat mandates. But it’s time to face the music; restaurants are a major culprit behind America’s trans fat intake. According to a study published in the April 2006 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, french fries and chicken nuggets from U.S. fast-food restaurants have 5 to 10 grams of trans fats per serving.6 If food manufacturers could respond to a public health crisis and alter their processes to make potato chips, tortilla chips, and baked goods free of trans fats, yet taste as good as they did in the old days, then what’s the big deal?
Numerous restaurants have actually made strides along the path to trans fat-free. On November 16, 2006, Taco Bell announced that it will convert its more than 4,200 single brand U.S. restaurants to using a zero grams trans fat canola oil for frying by April nationwide. On October 30, 2006, KFC announced that it is converting all of its 5,500 restaurants in the United States to using a zero grams trans fat cooking oil, low linolenic soybean oil, by the end of April nationwide. (KFC is still working on reformulating its biscuit recipe.) Wendy’s is replacing trans fat-containing frying oils with no increase in the saturated fat content of its products, and many other restaurant chains have made similar progress.
You would think that of all eating establishments, hospitals would be the most progressive about banning trans fat. Think again. The CSPI commissioned independent laboratory analyses of french fries from hospital cafeterias to determine the type of oil used for deep-frying and discovered that 18 of the nation’s top hospitals were serving foods prepared with partially hydrogenated oil.7
The Horizon for Replacements
Considering our food stream once depended on partially hydrogenated oils, there are big questions about how processors are replacing them. In 2005, estimates indicate that the country consumed between 6 and 7 billion pounds of partially hydrogenated oil.
For some food products, it’s a slam dunk; trans fats can be replaced with nonhydrogenated vegetable oil for a healthier lineup. But the problem is that you can’t replace trans fats with these healthier oils in every food product. Nonhydrogenated vegetables oils that are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids are susceptible to oxidation and may not offer the proper functionality. By reducing trans fat in food products, there can be many unwanted changes, including aeration capability changes, loss of volume, appearance change, greasy or oily handling character, interaction with the water component of dough or batter, reduction of shelf life, loss of softness, crispy texture, off flavor, differing coating effect of eating quality, and flavor development in the frying process.
So what are the alternatives for products that once enjoyed the stability and functionality of partially hydrogenated oils? Robert Reeves, president of the Institute of Shortening & Edible Oils in Washington, D.C., reports that there are basically four areas of trans fat alternatives currently in use. The first is naturally stable oils such as palm, coconut, palm kernel, high-oleic sunflower, corn, peanut, low linolenic soy, and high- or mid-oleic canola oils. Due to their fatty acid composition, these oils are naturally stable and may be used in combination with each other in certain products.
The second category is trait-enhanced oils in which traits are placed into oilseed varieties to make them more stable. These oils include low linolenic soybean and high-oleic canola oil.
The third group of replacement fats is made by mixing fully hydrogenated hard stock (containing no trans fat) with unhydrogenated oil. A typical mixture of 15% to 20% hard stock and 80% to 85% liquid oil may then be interesterified to customize the melting point, thus creating a useful product for many food applications.
The fourth area includes altering the hydrogenation process in fats so trans fat is reduced. By altering the pressure, temperature, catalyst, or time during the hydrogenation process, you can reduce the trans fat generation. Reeves reports that this is a fairly costly option and is not widely used.
“We will likely see more types of trait-enhanced oils in the future. The acreage for low linolenic soybeans is rapidly expanding this year. Next year, there will likely be three to four times the acreage in low linolenic soybeans and some increase in high-oleic canola,” says Reeves. According to the United Soybean Board, farmers planted approximately 200,000 acres of low linolenic soybean varieties in 2005. Nearly 1 million acres were expected to be planted in 2006 to meet the anticipated demand.
Even though there are concerns that we don’t have sufficient supply to meet the need of replacing partially hydrogenated oil in the U.S. food supply, Reeves points out that “there are plenty of options out there to replace trans fat in numerous applications. The same shoe doesn’t fit all feet.”
Health Concerns Arise From Replacements
Health experts are concerned that the decrease in trans fat use may prompt an increase in saturated fat use. Gram for gram, trans fat is worse than saturated fat, but if more than 1 gram of saturated fat is used to replace 1 gram of trans fat, then the benefits gained from replacing trans fat may quickly vanish. “It is not our objective to replace trans fat with saturated fats,” says Estrow, who notes that dietitians aren’t advocating many of the foods that were high in trans fat originally, such as fried foods and processed foods.
Elsewhere in the world, food processors are turning more frequently to palm oil for various applications due to its functionality and stability. “Though saturated fatty acids are recognized to increase total and LDL [low-density lipoprotein] cholesterol levels, not all saturated fatty acids are equally cholesterol-raising,” says Kalyana Sundram, PhD, deputy CEO and director of science and environment for the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, who reports that some studies have shown palm olein (found in palm oil) to have beneficial effects on plasma cholesterol comparable to that of monounsaturated oils.
Palm oil has not only been embroiled in the saturated fat debate, but the CSPI has also issued warnings about switching to palm oil because palm plantations have replaced rainforests full of orangutans, tigers, and other endangered species. The developing Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil hopes to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through cooperation with the supply chain, considering factors such as zero burning policy, reduced use of artificial fertilizers, minimal use of fossil fuels, elimination of pesticides, and erosion prevention.
Artificial trans fat reared its ugly head when health organizations painted saturated fat as the “bad” fat, and food processors quickly responded with a functional replacement that would allow the food labels to read “0 grams of saturated fat.” Now experts are wondering whether we’re setting ourselves up for the same scenario in the next generation. The overall effect of widespread increase in dietary interesterified fats on cardiovascular risk is unknown.
“We’re all alerted to these man-made products because of what we’ve experienced with partially hydrogenated oils. The research on how these replacement fats relate to health is sketchy at this point. It’s difficult to make hard and fast recommendations,” says Moloo.
Another concern surrounds genetic modification of a large volume of the plants grown to make new oils that will flood food manufacturers throughout the country. But Reeves reports, “The vast majority of trait-enhanced oils are not from transgenic oilseed varieties; they are made by traditional plant breeding practices.”
The way it stands now, consumers stumbling across soybean oil as the source of fat in their zero trans fat cookie won’t be able to tell whether the soybean oil has undergone interesterification or genetic engineering (certified organic products are transgenic-free). The label simply reads soybean oil.
“We managed for a long time without trans fats. We need to be on watch here about pushing things to market without testing them. The public is getting more educated. Is it safer to push something to market that is trans fat-free than accepting a small amount of saturated fat?” asks Estrow. She believes people will gradually return to cooking and away from processed, prepared products that initially made trans fat a big issue.
One thing’s for sure: There will be many more headlines heralding the movement away from trans fat in the coming years. It’s up to nutrition professionals to be part of the process to guide the country to healthier choices.
— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.
1. 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, Subcommittee report on Trans Fat. Available here. Accessed November 19, 2006.
2. Healthy Eating Messages Appear to Be Resonating with Consumers. Health Care News. April 5, 2006. Available here.
3. Results of Public Hearing and Comments Received Regarding Amendment of Article 81 of the New York City Health Code adding a new Section 81.08 to limit the use of artificial trans fat in NYC food service establishments (FSEs). December 4, 2006. Available here.
4. Food Processors & Supermarkets Move Forward on Trans Fat Chain Restaurants Lag Far Behind, According to CSPI Survey. November 22, 2005. Available here.
5. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better. April 5, 2006. CSPI. Available here.
6. Stender S, Dyerberg J, Astrup A. High levels of trans fat in popular fast foods. N Engl J Med. 2006;354(15):1650-1652.
7. Top Hospitals Harming Hearts by Cooking with Trans Fat, CSPI Tests Show Hospitals Using Partially Hydrogenated Oil. February 6, 2006. Available here.
On the Trans Fat-Free Campaign Trail
Trans fat is so despised that certain organizations have officially waged war on it. BanTransFat.com, the organization that sued Kraft in 2003 to eliminate trans fat in Oreos, works behind the scenes to help the food industry reduce and eliminate trans fat in the food supply and educate the public about its harmful effects.
TransFreeAmerica (TransFreeAmerica.org) is a project of nonprofit the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the nation’s leading nutrition and food safety watchdog group, which hopes to eliminate partially hydrogenated oil from the U.S. food supply. The CSPI is pushing to revoke the “generally recognized as safe” status of partially hydrogenated oils, require restaurants to disclose the use of partially hydrogenated oils, ban “0 g trans fat” claims on foods that are not saturated fat-free, and allow “0 g trans fat” only on foods with less than 0.2 grams of trans fat as opposed to less than 0.5.