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The FDA Finally Takes Trans Fat Off the Menu

June 16, 2015

There’s a reason Twinkies don’t get moldy, and chocolate chip cookies seem to last forever on gas station shelves—for decades, thousands of America’s favorite foods have been loaded with trans fats to keep them shelf stable.

But all those cakes, pies, and muffins are going to need a new recipe:  Earlier today, the FDA officially banished trans fats.

History of Trans Fat and the FDA

The story of trans fat traces back to around 1911, when it was introduced in the form of shortening for use in baking pies. Americans started to fall in love with the flaky crusts they could make with this stuff. Fast forward to the 1950s and ’60s, when butter and eggs were becoming demonized for their saturated fat content, prompting even more people to turn to margarine and go deeper into the belly of the beast of trans fat.

Health Issues, Trans Fat and Food Labeling

After decades of mounting health issues across the country, it turns out fingers were pointed in the wrong direction—it was trans fat, not saturated fat, that actually facilitated a “fast food nation,” raising obesity and its associated health issues. Fortunately, food companies became required to include trans fat content on the Nutrition Facts label in 2006.

Even before then, Americans were wising up to the adverse effects of partially hydrogenated oil. The FDA estimated that trans fat consumption has declined by 78 percent from 2003 to 2012. By late 2013, the FDA deemed it “a threat to public health,” the first step leading to today’s final ruling.

Trans fat—also known as partially hydrogenated oil—is formed by adding hydrogen to liquid oils to make solid fats, such as shortening and margarine. These fats are known to increase foods’ shelf life and enhance flavor. But is it worth it? Well, it raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol, resulting in an increased risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes. It also causes plaque to build up in arteries—a precursor to a heart attack. Add obesity and memory loss into the pool and it seems like a no-brainer that trans fat is not the best bet.

Alternatives to Trans Fat

Microwave popcorn, cake frosting and french fries will never be the same—they’ll be better. Palm oil and coconut oil, richer in saturated fat, are an alternative to partially hydrogenated fats used in these types of foods. (Palm oil, however, is linked to deforestation and carbon emissions, for which scientists are urging solutions.) Companies have until June 2018 to phase out trans fat, giving them ample time to refine their recipes. Who knows what exciting new food discoveries are in store? French fries with a subtle hint of coconut, and healthier, too? Yes, please.

An economic analysis by the FDA estimated that the food industry will spend more than $6 billion over 20 years in order to meet the new regulations. However, consumers will benefit from over $130 billion in reduced medical costs. According to the FDA, the elimination of trans fat could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 premature deaths each year.

From banning cigarettes to taxing junk food, government has played a key role in public health in the past decade. But will consumers start making better choices without official intervention? Here’s hoping that taking trans fat off the table gives us all a head start.

Photo credit: Linda Nguyen via Flickr

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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