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The FDA just ordered food companies to stop using trans fat. Here's what it means for you.

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  1. The Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on trans fat, asking food manufacturers to remove it from their products within three years.
  2. The move comes after the FDA's tentative determination last year that partially hydrogenated oils (the primary source of artificial trans fat in people's diets) is not "generally recognized as safe."
  3. For decades, scientific evidence has mounted about the health harms of these man-made unsaturated fats, and in 2006 the FDA began requiring manufacturers to label the trans fat content on packaged foods.
  4. Removing trans fat from the food supply is expected to save thousands of lives since researchers have, for decades, established a strong link between the consumption of trans fat and the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks.

This is just the latest FDA crackdown on trans fat

margarine

(AN NGUYEN /Shutterstock)

If you think you've been reading news about the FDA and trans fat for a while, you're right. Back in 2006, the FDA required manufacturers to start labeling their foods with trans fat content information. By 2013, the FDA tentatively determined that trans fat could no longer be considered safe for people to eat.

Today, the regulator is acting on that determination by telling food manufacturers to remove partially hydrogenated oils (the primary source of artificial trans fat in people's diets) from their products by 2018.

This policy brings the US in line with other countries that have already banned trans fat, including Denmark, Austria, Iceland, and Switzerland. And it comes after a number of cities across the United States, starting with New York City, banned the use of this type of fat in restaurants.

What is trans fat, and where do you find it?

trans fat cookie

(nopphara/Shutterstock)

Major sources of artificial trans fat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include frozen pizzas, cake, cookies, pie, margarine and spreads, ready-made frosting, coffee creamers, fried foods, and savory snacks (such as microwave popcorn). Trans fat are also used in restaurant cooking, particularly in baking and frying.

While trans fat can occur naturally at very low levels in some meat and dairy products, researchers worry about artificial trans fat. These are made when oil goes through a processed called hydrogenation, which involves adding hydrogen to liquid oil to make it more solid.

Artificial trans fats have been around for more than a century, but they've risen in popularity since the 1950s because they're relatively inexpensive compared with solid animal fats, they increase the shelf life of food, they taste good, and — at a time when other saturated fats like butter were vilified — they were billed as a healthy alternative. (Think margarine or vegetable shortening.)

Now the policy is moving to reflect findings that they're not as safe as was once suspected. During the three-year compliance period, food companies will need to either reformulate their products without trans fats or get permission from the FDA to use them for specific reasons.

Why the policy change came decades after researchers sounded the alarm

The new FDA policy lags the science by decades. Researchers first began sounding the alarm about the potential harms of trans fat in the 1950s. The evidence that trans fat consumption increased bad (LDL) cholesterol in the blood and decreased the amount of good (HDL) cholesterol — raising the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks — has been mounting since the 1970s.

According to Kenneth Oye, a professor of political science at MIT, the FDA has actually been remarkably slow to respond to the science. "It's not a trivial case because of the numbers of unnecessary deaths related to trans fat consumption," he said. He partly attributes this lag to attempts by food manufacturers to block and obscure the science.

Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, began his research on trans fat after reading about its effects on pig arteries. In a study of more than 100,000 women, he started tracking trans fat consumption and its link with hard outcomes like coronary heart disease and death.

"After eight years, we saw a striking increase of heart disease risk [in the group that ate the most trans fat]," he told Vox. Those findings were published in The Lancet in 1993, but, he added, he had a hard time getting his research out.

"There was a lot of resistance to idea that trans fat might be a problem because of the recommendations — from the American Heart Association and other groups — telling people to eat a lot of margarine and Crisco, which is high in trans fat," he said. "It was hard to swallow that trans fat could be worse than lard and butter."

So, according to Willett, part of the lag time between science and policy had to do with the scientific community's unwillingness to accept new evidence that defied common thinking at the time. "Many people had based their whole careers on a campaign against saturated fat," he added.

Following Willett's research, others have come to the same conclusion, which caused the FDA to introduce its labeling requirement in 2006. By 2012, about 75 percent of the trans fat had been removed from the food supply.

What the trans fat change means for you

Americans still consume an average of 1.3 grams (or 0.6 percent of energy intake) from artificial trans fat each day, according to the CDC, so today's clampdown by the FDA is expected to prevent more premature deaths.

"Further reducing trans fat consumption by avoiding artificial trans fat could prevent 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 coronary heart disease deaths each year in the US," the CDC said.

If people don't eat processed foods, they probably aren't eating many artificial trans fats. "But that doesn't apply to very many people," said Willett. "And if you went to a restaurant, the fats used in baking and frying were high in trans fats."

He added: "When fully enacted in three years, we’ll be able to not worry about trans fat. And that’s good because there are lots of other things we need to be dealing with [in] our food supply: too much salt, too much sugar, too much red meat, not enough fruits, vegetables, and fiber. It's good to have something solved."

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