Last month's announcement from federal regulators that they are ending the use of trans fats in food products brought a cheer from health advocates. But how do companies that produce food products plan to cope?
Food scientists say the food industry should be able to make a smooth transition away from the substance.
On June 16 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a final determination, removing partially hydrogenated oils (PHO), the primary source of artificial trans fats in processed food, from the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list of human food ingredients.
Food manufacturers will have three years to completely phase it out. The FDA said it took the action based on a review of the scientific evidence.
“The FDA’s action on this major source of artificial trans fat demonstrates the agency’s commitment to the heart health of all Americans," said FDA's Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, M.D. "This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”
There has always been some trans fat in food because small amounts form naturally in meat and dairy products. The natural form is not the issue.
Extends shelf life
Instead, the new regulation is aimed at the artificial trans fats that the food industry has used for decades to keep food from going bad and add to a product's shelf life, both in the supermarket and in consumers' pantries.
"If you take oils naturally found in nature, especially the ones that have a lot of unsaturated fats, they are unstable in food products and get rancid," said Fadi Aramouni, professor of food processing and food product development at Kansas State University. "Years ago, the food industry developed a process to hydrogenate these fats.”
By adding hydrogen to oils at high temperatures, the process makes the oil more solid and a lot more stable, and in the process forms what we call trans fat.
“The trans fat, also known as partially hydrogenated oils, are used in a lot of formulations and actually give the food product a little better texture and better taste," Aramouni said.
Raises cholesterol levels
As a result, food manufacturers began using trans fat in more and more processed foods like baked goods, frozen foods, and snack foods. Then, in the 1990s, clinical studies began to show that trans fat raises the "bad" LDL cholesterol and lowers the "good" HDL cholesterol in blood, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease. Subsequent research found that trans fat also stiffens arteries and may increase the risk of diabetes.
While food companies now have three years to remove trans fat from their products, Aramouni says most companies have already made the adjustment. In other words, the food you buy today doesn't contain much trans fat.
"When the FDA required labeling of trans fat in 2006, a lot of companies moved away from using the product," Aramouni said. "Many big oil suppliers developed types of oils that are stable without being hydrogenated, which is done by changing the fatty acid composition of these oils.”
The American Bakers Association says its member companies have been dropping trans fat from its products over the last decade. Still, the trade group was pleased the FDA is giving it three years to complete the process.
“This action provides bakers and other food makers adequate time to further formulate to other, healthier alternative[s], as well as address a number of practical challenges including packaging changes and availability,” the group said in a statement.
Food companies are still adding oil to their products, but many of the types now in use are stable without having trans fat in them. Some companies started using unsaturated fats or natural oils again, incorporating antioxidants to help maintain the shelf life.
As a result, Aramouni says he doesn't think the ban will be much of a problem for the food industry, since most companies have already made the transition. At the same time, he says consumers should be aware of what they're getting.
Under current nutrition labeling regulations, a product containing less than half a gram of trans fat can claim zero trans fat in the product. That requires a closer reading of product labels. Aramouni says consumers need to read the ingredients list, which requires the food to list any partially hydrogenated oils it contains.