by Marion Nestle
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.

  • Mark.

    Trans fats are cheap and have useful properties in processed foods. Also, heating polyunsaturated oils can cause some double bonds to go trans, it seems, so using such oils would risk penalties. No surprise, this. Money and convenience trump public health, I guess.

    It’s ironic that CSPI is on the other side. They were pushing early on for the elimination of animal fat particularly in fry oil, and it took them quite some time to start noticing and caring that in practice this meant a lot of extra trans fat in the American diet.

  • Alex Stolberg

    The industry comments are a nice mix of entertaining and horrifying. From ConAgra:

    “The consumption of trans-fatty acids is the actual issue, not the production of PHOs which are merely a source of trans-fatty acids.”

  • stuward

    If companies replace trans fats with Interesterified fat or unsustainable palm oil, is there really any benefit? Are we just trading a known risk for an unknown risk?

  • primenumbers

    CSPI are part of the problem, not the solution. We’d still be able to eat out and get food fried in good, stable saturated fats if it were not for them.

  • Spud Murphy

    It is interesting to watch the US debate about trans fats. As it food technologist in the UK who worked through the removal of HVO’s in bakery products over a decade ago I can recognise some of the same issue emerging. There was resistance from the fats & oil suppliers in the UK. The main driving force for change in the UK was the major food retailers who insisted that their Retailer Brand products contained no HVO’s. This presented a major headache for most manufacturers. As other comments have mentioned interesterification and the use of Palm oil were really the only alternative although we did use fractionation of oils as well.
    Interestingly one of the major oil suppliers in the UK was ADM. They had to tackle this issue directly along with all the other suppliers. I think they even ripped out their hydrogenation plant in the UK.
    So I suppose the bottom line is that it is possible to remove HVO’s but it needs a will/ driving force behind it along with a lot of technical work.

  • karinacocina

    How about people just limit/stop eating foods that need trans fat in the first place?

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  • jere14

    I have yet to see a cohort study in which risk modeling, including Cox’s method of proportional hazard determination, has been correctly applied. As such hazard ratios that implicate an association between trans fat and coronary heart disease do not have credibility. Until medical scientist decide to learn how to apply regression analysis and statistics, results from cohort studies in which there are important confounders have no relevance. Furthermore, I have yet to see a cohort study on coronary heart disease that comes close to including all requisite confounding variables.