On the Table

On the Table: Harmful trans fats may be on the way out

CorrespondentNovember 11, 2013 

Score one for the food police.

It took decades of work by health advocates and several years of re-engineering of products by food manufacturers, but we’re on the cusp of seeing the end of artificial trans fats in what we eat.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this month that it intends to remove artificial trans fats from the list of foods that are “generally recognized as safe.” If the FDA proposal survives an obligatory public comment period, it will likely lead to elimination of partially hydrogenated oils – the major source of artificial trans fats – from the U.S. food supply.

Why is this important? Diets high in trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils are associated with higher rates of coronary artery disease and heart attacks.

For decades, trans fats were essentially invisible in foods because they weren’t listed on nutrition labels. That changed in 2006 when new regulations required that manufacturers list the trans fat content of their products.

The results were dramatic. Once people could see how much trans fat some products contained, it prompted a rush of product redevelopment by manufacturers who removed partially hydrogenated oils from many cookies, crackers, pies, pastries and snack foods.

That took years to accomplish, though, since in 2006 about 40 percent of all supermarket foods contained trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils.

That year the Institute of Medicine released a report stating there was no safe level of intake of trans fat.

However, official recommendations didn’t go so far as suggesting total avoidance of trans fats. That’s because considering how widespread trans fats were in the food supply, the report’s authors were afraid people couldn’t avoid trans fats and still get enough to eat.

That same year I came out with the book “Get The Trans Fat Out,” written to coach people on how to minimize their exposure to the stuff.

The removal of trans fat from foods is a victory for public health and another example of the impact that science-based food regulation can have.

And here’s one more sign of how far we’ve come: You can still buy “Get The Trans Fat Out” online … for 1 cent.

It’s a good thing the book isn’t needed anymore.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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