Trans fats have officially become an ingredient of the past in the United States.
The artificial fats disappeared from restaurants and grocery shelves this week thanks to a 2015 ruling by the Food and Drug Administration that the fats aren’t safe for human consumption. A subsequent FDA mandate gave food manufacturers until June 18, 2018, to reformulate their products to exclude trans fats.
For decades, trans fats — which turned up on most nutrition labels as partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) — were added to many processed foods, including pie crusts, baked goods, microwave popcorn, crackers, processed meats, and other snack foods. The oils were industry favorites because of their “commercially favorable properties, such as long shelf life, stability during deep frying, and palatability,” note Kelly D. Brownell, PhD, and Jennifer L. Pomeranz, JD, MPH, in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).
However, a wealth of evidence has linked trans fats with chronic inflammation, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, increased risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, and behavioral problems. “By the mid-2000s, it was clear beyond doubt that trans fats increase the risk of coronary heart disease,” notes the NEJM editorial.
The FDA required food manufacturers to add trans fats to nutrition labels in 2006, the same year New York City banned trans fats in restaurant food. The state of California banned trans fats in restaurant food in 2008.
“The elimination of artificial trans fat from the food supply represents a historic and long-fought victory for public health,” said Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, the former executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement about the ban. “Ridding the food supply of partially hydrogenated oils will save tens of thousands of lives each year.”
As of this month, food manufacturers have eliminated trans fats from 98 percent of their products. But these unhealthy oils still linger in a few specific products, reports the Washington Post. The food industry argued that trans fats should be allowed to remain in some products — to enhance flavor and to grease large baking pans — and the FDA agreed to give those companies another year to find an effective replacement.
Overall, however, nutrition experts are pleased with the ban.
“I would have preferred [the FDA not give] the one-year extension because manufacturers have had plenty of time to eliminate the use of trans fat,” Harvard University nutrition professor Walter Willett told the Washington Post. “However, these are small enough that we can say that industrial trans fat has been removed from our food supply.”
For more on which fats are healthy, check out The Facts About Fat.