Removal of Trans Fats: What You Need to Know
Written By: Samantha McCarthy, MS, RD/LDN
Over the last 14 years, the food industry has been making a huge shift in its fat usage. We went from a food supply laden with artificial trans fats to a virtually trans fat free food supply, thanks to the Food and Drug Administrations ban on artificial trans fat usage. As of Monday June 18th, 2018, food manufacturers are not allowed to use trans fats in their products. This is a huge milestone for the health of our country.
Trans fats were created in the early 1900’s and was so regarded it won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1912. The inventor had figured out a way to make liquid vegetable oil solid or semi-solid at room temperature. It really started to become popular in the 60’s when saturated fats and cholesterol started to be linked to heart disease. Consumers no longer wanted foods high in cholesterol or saturated fats. They wanted fat-free and low-fat products. That meant butter was kicked to the curb. High saturated fat butter was replaced with trans-fat laden margarine and shortening in our food supply.
This trend continued over the next several decades. Thousands of foods were made with trans fats: microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, biscuits, frostings, fried foods, margarine, shortening, muffins, cookies, cakes, crackers, peanut butter, pie crusts, and many more. Another benefit of trans fats: it made products much more shelf stable. That Twinkie from 20 years ago that got lost in the back of your pantry: filled with trans fats. 20 years later, it probably still tastes and looks exactly the same. In short, trans fats revolutionized our food supply.
It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that we started to realize this magical product was not so good for us. Research started to come out that these artificial trans fats were increasing our risk of developing heart disease. Intake of trans fats causes an increase in our LDL cholesterol levels (the bad one) and a decrease in HDL cholesterol levels (the good one). Since 1993, researchers and health advocates have been pushing for the removal of trans fats from our food supply. 25 years later, we have achieved this massive undertaking. A huge win for public health.
You may be wondering, though, what’s replaced the trans fats? The answer may not be the one you want to hear. In many of these products, trans fats has been replaced with palm oil. Palm oil is an odorless, tasteless, shelf-stable, and solid at room temperature oil. This makes it an ideal ingredient for those shelf-stable products that need a solid fat (similar to trans fat) to create the right product. Compared to other fat sources, palm oil is higher in saturated fat with moderate amounts of unsaturated fats (the healthy kinds). Butter has 7 grams of saturated fat and only 3.4 grams of unsaturated fats in one tablespoon. Olive oil has only 2 grams of saturated fat and 11.4 grams of unsaturated fats. Palm oil ranks in the middle with 7 grams of saturated fat, just like butter, but more unsaturated fat at 6.3 grams. To be heart healthy, you want to limit your intake of saturated fats to about 15-22 grams per day. One tablespoon of either butter or palm oil is about ⅓ of your daily limit.
Saturated fats, like trans fats, have been shown over and over again to increase your risk of heart disease. The risk is not as high with saturated fats as it is with trans fats, but there is still significant risk with a high intake. So the replacement of palm oil for trans fats does not make the product a healthy food. It is still a food we want to eat in moderation to keep our risk of heart disease down. Bottom line: continue to limit foods like pastries, cookies, frozen pizza, frostings, baked goods, and fried foods.
Today’s Dietitian. July 2014. “Substituting Palm Oil for Trans Fats.” http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/070114p20.shtml
Center for Science in the Public Interest. June 2018. “A Final Farewell to Artificial Trans Fats.” https://cspinet.org/news/final-farewell-artificial-trans-fat-20180613