Heart-clogging trans fats have been slowly disappearing from grocery aisles and restaurant menus in the last decade, yet they are still found in many top-selling snack foods. Now, it appears that trans fats may have finally reached their expiration date with a ruling by the Obama Administration that would require U.S. food manufacturers to dramatically cut back on a substance that has long been designated as unhealthy and potentially deadly.
The ruling, expected as early as next week, follows a 2013 announcement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils, posed significant health risks, namely an increase in levels of bad cholesterol. Shortly after, the U.S. Department of Agriculture removed trans fats from its “generally recognized as safe” category of foods.
Food industry insiders speculate that the new guidelines would call on manufacturers to reduce trans fat content by 85 percent, going beyond previously set limits and preventing 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths a year, FDA officials say.
“This is a massive win for public health,” Sam Kass, the former senior adviser for nutrition at the White House and executive director of Let’s Move!, told Politico. “There are few targeted actions you can take in this space that have that kind of direct impact.”
Trans fats are made by putting hydrogen molecules through liquid oil at high temperatures, making them solid and giving food a longer shelf life and texture. Ironically, food manufacturers first turned to trans fats in the 1950s as part of a push to cut use of saturated fats in animal products, commonly found in lard and butter.
However, by the 1990s, studies started linking trans fat consumption to possible health effects, and at this point, a slew of research has tied the consumption of the substance to diabetes, stroke, heart disease and other cardiovascular disorders. A Harvard School of Public Health study estimated that the substance causes nearly 100,000 premature deaths annually, while recent studies have also shown signs of memory loss in those who eat large amounts of trans fats.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a maximum of 2 g of trans fats per day – but that number includes naturally occurring trans fats, which are found in small amounts in milk and meat. The AHA guideline says, “Given the amount of naturally occurring trans fats you probably eat every day, this leaves virtually no room at all for industrially manufactured trans fats.”