by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Trans-fat

Mar 25 2014

Food companies want to hang onto trans fats

Good try FDA.

ProPolitico Morning Agriculture has a story today that surprises me.  Food companies are opposing the FDA’s proposal to revoke the GRAS status of trans fats (see previous post).

Why am I surprised?  I thought we were done with this one.  I didn’t think it was all that difficult to find substitutes for partially hydrogenated oils.  When trans fats went on food labels, most companies didn’t take long to go trans-fat free.

Now food companies are complaining that the FDA has gone too far, needs to allow companies to keep small amounts in foods, and doesn’t really have the authority to revoke GRAS status.

Among the 1600 comments received by the FDA are these:

Writing in favor of the revocation are:

As a reminder of what this is about, here’s a taste of what I said about trans fats in What to Eat:

Trans fats are not normal.   Hydrogenation causes some of the hydrogens in unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids to flip abnormally from the same side of the carbon chain (in Latin, “cis”) to the opposite side (“trans”).   The normal cis unsaturated fatty acids are flexible, which is why they are liquid; they bend and flow around each other.   But the change to trans causes unsaturated fatty acids to stiffen.  They behave a lot like saturated fatty acids in the body, where they can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

Mind you, this is not new information.   My trans fat file has papers on heart disease risk dating back to the mid-1970s.   In 1975, for example, British scientists suggested that one reason poor people in England had higher rates of heart disease was that they so often ate fish-and-chips fried in partially hydrogenated oils.   Since then, researchers have consistently found trans fats to be just as bad–or worse–than saturated fats from the standpoint of heart disease risk.

The recent meta-analysis says much the same thing.

Let’s get rid of trans fats once and for all and be done with them.  I hope the FDA holds firm on this one.

Nov 7 2013

Trans-fat: FDA proposes to eliminate GRAS status

The FDA has just announced a proposal to withdraw GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status for trans-fat.

My first reaction: Isn’t trans-fat already out of the food supply?  Hasn’t this been one of the food industry’s greatest public health achievements?

Once the FDA started to require trans-fat to be listed on food labels, food companies quickly stopped using partially hydrogenated oils (the source of trans-fat) and found healthier substitutes.  That’s why most food labels list zero grams trans-fat.

But the FDA allows food labels to say zero trans-fat if its amount is below 0.5 gram per serving.

Some manufacturers are still using a little.  This new initiative will encourage them to get rid of those last little bits.

Contrary to the New York Times headline, this is not exactly a ban on trans-fat.  If trans-fat is no longer GRAS, manufacturers can still file a food additive petition to continue using partially hydrogenated oils.

The Federal Register notice asks for input for the next 60 days.

I say congratulations to all:

  • To food companies who worked hard to find ways to substitute healthier fats for trans-fats.
  • To the FDA for finally taking care of the trans-fat 0.5-gram loophole.
  • To Center for Science in the Public Interest for bringing health problems with trans-fat to public attention.
  • To all of the researchers who did the science linking trans-fat to higher LDL-cholesterol levels and to heart disease risk.
  • To the New York City health department for banning trans-fats from use in city restaurants.

Americans will be healthier as a result of all of your efforts.

Resources

At the moment, the FDA has not yet posted its Federal Register notice on the GRAS status of trans-fat. When it does, the notice should be available here.

CSPI’s home page on trans fat

The FDA trans-fat home page

FDA consumer materials

FDA guidance for industry

Research

Sep 2 2012

Regulations do change eating behavior

My monthly, first Sunday column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I still don’t get it. Why would a city government think that a food regulation would promote health when any one of them is so easy to evade?

A: Quick answer: because they work.

As I explained in my July discussion of Richmond’s proposed soda tax, regulations make it easier for people to eat healthfully without having to think about it. They make the default choice the healthy choice. Most people choose the default, no matter what it is.

Telling people cigarettes cause cancer hardly ever got anyone to stop. But regulations did. Taxing cigarettes, banning advertising, setting age limits for purchases, and restricting smoking in airplanes, workplaces, bars and restaurants made it easier for smokers to stop.

Economists say, obesity and its consequences cost our society $190 billion annually in health care and lost productivity, so health officials increasingly want to find equally effective strategies to discourage people from over-consuming sugary drinks and fast food.

Research backs up regulatory approaches. We know what makes us overeat: billions of dollars in advertising messages, food sold everywhere – in gas stations, vending machines, libraries and stores that sell clothing, books, office supplies, cosmetics and drugs – and huge portions of food at bargain prices.

Research also shows what sells food to kids: cartoons, celebrities, commercials on their favorite television programs, and toys in Happy Meals. This kind of marketing induces kids to want the products, pester their parents for them, and throw tantrums if parents say no. Marketing makes kids think they are supposed to eat advertised foods, and so undermines parental authority.

Public health officials look for ways to intervene, given their particular legislated mandates and authority. But much as they might like to, they can’t do much about marketing to children. Food and beverage companies invoke the First Amendment to protect their “right” to market junk foods to kids. They lobby Congress on this issue so effectively that they even managed to block the Federal Trade Commission‘s proposed nonbinding, voluntary nutrition standards for marketing food to kids.

Short of marketing restrictions, city officials are trying other options. They pass laws to require menu labeling for fast food, ban trans fats, prohibit toys in fast-food kids’ meals and restrict junk foods sold in schools. They propose taxes on sodas and caps on soda sizes.

Research demonstrating the value of regulatory approaches is now pouring in.

Studies of the effects of menu labeling show that not everyone pays attention, but those who do are more likely to reduce their calorie purchases. Menu labels certainly change my behavior. Do I really want a 600-calorie breakfast muffin? Not today, thanks.

New York City’s 2008 ban on use of hydrogenated oils containing trans fats means that New Yorkers get less trans fat with their fast food, even in low-income neighborhoods. Whether this reduction accounts for the recent decline in the city’s rates of heart disease remains to be demonstrated, but getting rid of trans fats certainly hasn’t hurt.

Canadian researchers report that kids are three times more likely to choose healthier meals if those meals come with a toy and the regular ones do not. When it comes to kids’ food choices, the meal with the toy is invariably the default.

A recent study in Pediatrics compared obesity rates in kids living in states with and without restrictions on the kinds of foods sold in schools. Guess what – the kids living in states where schools don’t sell junk food are not as overweight.

Circulation has just published an American Heart Association review of “evidence-based population approaches” to improving diets. It concludes that evidence supports the value of intense media campaigns, on-site educational programs in stores, subsidies for fruits and vegetables, taxes, school gardens, worksite wellness programs and restrictions on marketing to children.

The benefits of the approaches shown in these studies may appear small, but together they offer hope that current trends can be reversed.

Researchers also suggest other approaches, not yet tried. The Yale Rudd Center has just shown that color-coded food labels (“traffic lights”) encourage healthier food choices.

And Rand Corp. researchers propose initiatives like those that worked for alcoholic beverages: Limit the density of fast-food outlets, ban sales in places that are not food stores, insist that supermarkets put junk foods and sodas where they are hard to see, ban drive-through sales, restrict portion sizes and use warning labels.

These regulatory approaches are worth trying. If research continues to demonstrate their value, cities will have even more reason to use them. If the research becomes compelling enough, the federal government might need to act.

In the meantime, cities are leading the way, Richmond among them. Their initiatives are well worth trying, testing and supporting.

**Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com

Oct 24 2011

On Denmark’s “fat tax”

I have a commentary in the October 23 issue of New Scientist (UK):

Cover of 22 October 2011 issue of New Scientist magazine

World’s first fat tax: what will it achieve?

Enviably healthy Denmark is leading the way in taxing unhealthy food. Why are they doing it, and will it work

THE Danish government’s now infamous “fat tax” has caused an international uproar, applauded by public health advocates on the one hand and dismissed on the other as nanny-state social engineering gone berserk.

I see it as one country’s attempt to stave off rising obesity rates, and its associated medical conditions, when other options seem less feasible. But the policies appear confusing. Why Denmark of all places? Why particular foods? Will such taxes really change eating behaviour? And aren’t there better ways to halt or reverse rising rates of diet-related chronic disease?

Before getting to these questions, let’s look at what Denmark has done. In 2009, its government announced a major tax overhaul aimed at cushioning the shock of the global economic crisis, promoting renewable energy, protecting the environment, discouraging climate change, and improving health – all while maintaining revenues, of course.

The tax reforms make it more expensive to produce products likely to harm the environment and to consume products potentially harmful to health, specifically tobacco, ice cream, chocolate, candy, sugar-sweetened soft drinks, and foods containing saturated fats.

Some of these taxes took effect last July. The current fuss is over the introduction this month of a tax on foods containing at least 2.3 per cent saturated fat, a category that includes margarine, salad and cooking oils, animal fats, and dairy products, but not – thanks to effective lobbying from the dairy industry – fluid milk.

Copenhagen is the home of René Redzepi’s Noma, voted the world’s best restaurant for the past two years. To Americans, “Danish” means highly calorific fruit – and cheese-filled breakfast pastries. Despite such culinary riches, the Nordic nation reports enviable health statistics and a social support system beyond the wildest imagination of inhabitants of many countries. Danish citizens are entitled to free or very low-cost childcare, education and healthcare. Cycle lanes and high taxes on cars make bicycles the preferred method for getting to school or work, even by 63 per cent of members of the Danish parliament, the Folketing.

Taxes pay for this through policies that maintain a relatively narrow gap between the incomes of rich and poor. The Danish population is literate and educated. Its adult smoking rate is 19 per cent. Its obesity rate is 13.4 per cent, below the European average of 15 per cent and a level not seen in the US since the 1970s. Denmark has long used the tax system to achieve health goals. It has taxed candy for nearly 90 years, and was the first country to ban trans-fats in 2003.

Because its level of income disparity is relatively low, the effects of health taxes are less hard on the poor than in many other countries. But the Danes want their health to be better. Obesity rates may be low by US standards, but they used to be lower – 9.5 per cent in 2000. Life expectancy in Denmark is 79 years, at least two years below that in Japan or Iceland. The stated goal of the tax policies is to increase life expectancy as well as to reduce the burden and cost of illness from diet-related diseases.

Like all taxes, the “health” taxes are supposed to raise revenue: 2.75 billion Danish kroner annually ($470 million). The tax on saturated fat is expected to account for more than one-third of that. Since all food fats – no exceptions – are mixtures of saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, the tax will have to be worked out food by food. Producers must do this, pay the tax, and pass the cost on to consumers.

Taxes on cigarettes are set high enough to discourage use, especially among young people. But the food taxes are low, 0.34 kroner on a litre of soft drinks, for example. The “fat” tax is 16 kroner per kilogram of saturated fat. In dollars, the taxes will add 12 cents to a bag of crisps and 40 cents to the price of a burger. Whether these amounts will discourage purchases remains to be seen.

Other countries are playing “me too” or waiting to see the results of Denmark’s experiment. Hungary has imposed a small tax on sweets, salty snacks, and sugary and caffeinated drinks and intends to use the revenues to offset healthcare costs. Romania and Iceland had such taxes but dropped them, whereas Finland and Ireland are considering them. Surprisingly, given his party’s anti-nanny state platform, UK prime minister David Cameron is suggesting food taxes to counter the nation’s burgeoning obesity crisis. The US has resisted calls for taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, not least because the soft drink companies spent millions of dollars on defeating such proposals.

Leaving aside the usual criticisms, such as the impact on poorer people, I have a different reason for being troubled by tax interventions. They aim to change individual behaviour, but do little to change the behaviour of corporations that make and market unhealthful products, spending vast fortunes to make them available, desirable and socially acceptable.

Today, more and more evidence demonstrates the importance of food environment factors, such as processing, cost and marketing, in influencing food choices (The Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60813-1). Raising taxes is one way to change that environment by influencing the cost to the consumer. But governments seriously concerned about reducing rates of chronic disease should also consider ways to regulate production of unhealthy products, along with the ways they are marketed.

In the meantime, let us congratulate Denmark on what could be viewed as a revolutionary experiment. I can’t wait to see the results.

Marion Nestle is the author of Food Politics and What To Eat and is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University

Oct 13 2010

IOM Front-of-Package Label Committee releases Phase 1 report

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its first Front-of-Package (FOP) labeling report this morning. Phase I is a tough, detailed examination of about 20 of the existing FOP schemes along with some recommendations about what such schemes ought to do.

FOP labels are those little spots, check marks, and tokens that are all over food packages these days and that are supposed to indicate that the product is especially healthy for you.  They may seem utterly trivial, but they are of desperate importance to food companies.  FOP labels sell food products.  Food marketers love them and need them.  The FDA worries that having so many of them confuses the public, and that the schemes are based on criteria that serve industry purposes more than to promote public health.

As the IOM press release explains:

A multitude of nutrition rating, or guidance, systems have been developed by food manufacturers, government agencies, nutrition groups, and others in recent years with the intent of helping consumers quickly compare products’ nutritional attributes and make healthier choices. Ratings are typically communicated to shoppers through symbols placed prominently on food packaging, usually on the front, or on retail shelf tags. Unlike the Nutrition Facts panel, these rating systems and symbols are unregulated, and different systems focus on different nutrients. The variation may confuse consumers, and questions have been raised about the systems’ underlying nutritional criteria.

The committee did a terrific analysis of current FOP schemes.  My favorite parts are its

  • Clear, concise histories of nutrition and FOP labeling (students: take note!)
  • Detailed evaluation of the strengths (few) and weaknesses (many) of the existing schemes
  • Demonstration of the inconsistent results of applying the schemes to specific foods

The report gives examples of the inconsistent results of three scoring schemes: Guiding Stars, NRFI [Nutrient-Rich Foods Index], and Nu-Val

  • Instant oatmeal received 3 Guiding Stars, and scores of 87 by NRFI and 39 by NuVal.
  • Non-instant oatmeal received 2 Guiding Stars, and scores of 22 by NRFI and 57 by NuVal
  • Toasted oat cereal received 2 Guiding Stars, and scores of 84 by NRFI and 37 by NuVal
  • Fat free milk, 1% fat milk, and fat free plain yogurt received 3 Guiding Stars, but fat free milk was scored 56 by NRFI and 91 by NuVal; 1% fat milk was scored 30 by NRFI and 81 by NuVal, and fat free plain yogurt was scored 43 by NRFI and 96 by NuVal.

The committee’ key recommendation: FOP labels should deal with just four nutrients: calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.

These nutrients, says the committee, “are routinely overconsumed and associated most strongly with diet-related health problems affecting many Americans, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.”

Comment: Trans fat seems unnecessary here.  It is already out of most packaged foods.   Or maybe the committee thinks that leaving it off will give food companies permission to put hydrogenated oils back in?

The committee chose not to add sugars to this list:

The committee concurred that both added and naturally occurring sugars contribute to the caloric content of foods and beverages and overconsumption of high-calorie products can lead to obesity.  Highlighting calories per serving in nutrition rating systems would address this concern.

Comment: I think consumers want to know about added sugars in food products.  I certainly do.

Phase II comes next

It will examine designs and look at consumer understanding of the labels, and will discuss “the pros and cons of having a single, standardized front-label food guidance system that is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Presumably, Phase II will deal with questions that are not addressed in the Phase I report:

  • Will this scheme supersede all of the other labeling systems currently on food packages?
  • Will it be voluntary or mandatory?  For all food products, or just selected ones?
  • If the scheme is voluntary, why would food companies choose to use it since it mostly highlights the negatives—the nutrients to be avoided?
  • How will it affect the nutrient-content claims currently on food packages?  (Examples: “Contains 8 vitamins!”  “100% vitamin C!” “High fiber!”)
  • How will it affect shelf-labeling schemes such as the Nu-Val system used at Price Chopper supermarkets and the ANDI system used by Whole Foods?

FOP labels are about marketing, not health

This scheme, like the many others developed by food companies singly or together, is designed to help the public decide whether one highly processed, packaged food product is nutritionally better than another.

As I have discussed many times on this site, this approach raises a philosophical question: Is a slightly “better for you” food product necessarily a good choice?

I hope the committee will ponder this and some of my other questions as it enters Phase II.

Addendum: I gather from what I’ve heard about the press conference this morning that some of my questions were answered.  The FOP proposal will not affect nutrient content claims on the front of packages.  Companies will still be able to proclaim the nutritional benefits of their products in words and banners.  They just won’t be able to use them in whatever symbol gets chosen.  So what difference will this report make?  Not much, alas, except to get rid of the silly symbols in use right now.

Update, October 14:  William Neuman’s account of this event in the New York Times starts with this: “Tell us how your products are bad for us.”

Jul 27 2008

Trans fat politics: this time, California

Following New York City’s lead, California’s hotshot governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger has just signed a ban on trans fats into law. It takes effect in 2010. This, plus labeling requirements for packaged foods, ought to end the practice of partially hydrogenating vegetable oils. My prediction: trans fats are soon to be a thing of the past. This should have happened a long time ago, as there are plenty of substitutes. So the big question is whether the disapperance of trans fats will have any effect on health. I hope it helps reduce the risk of heart disease but nobody should expect it to help people maintain weight. Whatever substitutes get used will have the same number of calories. Why are New York City and California doing this? Because it might do some good and is politically expedient. Getting vending machines out of schools, stopping marketing to children, and getting everyone on bicycles is a lot harder.

Jan 9 2008

Krispy Kreme goes healthy?

They’ve just agreed to remove the trans fats. So now their donuts will be “Trans fat-free.” Progress? I wonder what the new frying oil will be….

Dec 31 2007

Trans-fat substitutes: How?

Here’s a quick question, just in: “I finally got the chance to finish What to Eat, and I noticed that you didn’t talk about non-hydrogenated margarine in your margarine section. I’m not wondering if it’s better for you because I’m sure it’s still soybean oil with a bunch of stabilizers, but I’m just wondering how it’s made.”

Response: I did actually, but in two other chapters, the next one and the one on fats and oils so the explanation is hard to find. Sorry about that. Here’s the deal: companies use variations of two methods: (1) substitute a highly saturated fat like palm kernal or coconut oils, or (2) mix a totally saturated fat (which will not have any trans) with an unhydrogenated fat (also trans-free) until you get the degree of thickness required. Both methods increase the amount of saturated fatty acids. Saturated fats raise the risk of heart disease, but not as much as trans. So the substitutes are likely to be marginally better than oils with trans.

Page 1 of 212