The Food and Drug Administration aims to take trans fat out of foods.
(Photo: Seth Perlman, AP)
The Food and Drug Administration's plan announced Thursday to take artificial trans fats entirely out of the food supply is pushing the industry to reformulate the remaining products that still have them.
Pie makers looking to Thanksgiving dinner needn't fret, however. The FDA plan won't affect Crisco, crucial to flaky crusts, because the vegetable shortening maker removed trans fat from its product several years ago.
Many companies began to take trans fat-containing ingredients out of their products over 10 years ago, when health concerns about them surfaced and when cities, including New York and San Francisco, banned their use in restaurants. An FDA rule requiring they be listed on nutrition labels in 2006 further spurred food manufacturers to remove them.
In a statement, the Grocery Manufacturers of America said since that 2005 food manufacturers have already lowered trans fats in products by more than 73%. Today, the FDA says, 12% of all packaged foods contain a partially hydrogenated oil, the formal name for trans fats.
Numerous studies have shown that consumption of trans fats can have "lots of adverse health events, including raising bad cholesterol and lowering good cholesterol," said Penny Kris-Etherton, a professor of nutrition at Penn State University in University Park, Pa.
"There really is no safe level of consumption of trans fat," FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 5,000 Americans a year die of heart disease because artificial trans fat is in the food supply "and another 15,000 will get heart disease," said Thomas Frieden, CDC director.
These fats "increase the shelf life of foods but decrease the shelf life of humans," said Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco.
Companies are pushing to find substitutes. But it's not easy, says Janet Collins, a food chemist who is president of the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago. Collins outlined the most difficult cases:
• Coffee creamer: Fresh cream quickly goes rancid and vegetable oil would do the same if it weren't hydrogenated.
• Canned frosting: Butter-based frostings melt and turn into "puddles of goo." Hydrogenated oils stay solid and keep frosting smooth at room temperature.
• Stick and tub margarine: Turning vegetable oil into a spreadable solid requires a chemical change. New techniques have been developed, but they cost more.
• Baked goods: Solid fats such as butter, lard or shortening make cakes and cookies tender and allow them to brown. Creating solid fat from vegetable oil without hydrogenation is possible, but more expensive.
• Microwave popcorn: Hydrogenated vegetable oils are shelf-stable for longer and can be formulated to melt at exactly the temperatures when the kernels pop.
• Frying oils: Oils for industrial use need to stand up against multiple uses over the course of a day. Hydrogenation helps the oil stay stable and keeps it from going rancid. Soybean growers are working on soy oils that will do this naturally.
• Candies: Many chewy candies require fat to keep them moist and to protect the sugar in them from crystallizing.
The switch can cost more but is possible, says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. "In every food category we've examined in which some brands have trans fat, we've found comparable foods without trans fat."
Americans are divided over whether the government should be involved in food choices.
The nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center last week found 44% in favor of prohibiting restaurants from using trans fats in foods, while 52% opposed the idea.