Photograph by Tony Robins, Getty Images
Photograph by Tony Robins, Getty Images

Sorting the Shifting Facts on Trans Fat

Humans have a very complicated relationship with fat. We’re kind of obsessed with it, but we are only vaguely aware that eating foods containing fat doesn’t necessarily make us fat. It’s all about the kind of fat we’re eating, and the amount we’re eating in balance with everything else. We’re confused, and it’s no wonder–the science and the diet fads have shifted over time.

Take trans fats, for example. Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made a long-awaited announcement it would clear most trans most fats from our diets by 2018. The science shows its bad for our hearts, and the Obama administration says it is no longer worth the risk.

But trans fats, primarily those found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (PHO), were once the darling of the food industry. Trans fats, introduced in the 1950s, made packaged foods tasty and shelf-stable, and became cheaper substitutes for the butter, lard and beef tallow that was used before they came along. Use continued to soar through the 1980s, as doctors warned us to cut back on the saturated fat in meat and dairy products.

Crackers, cookies, cakes and Crisco could all live practically forever in the pantry. But now, we may be paying for it.

In the last decade or so, science suggests that trans fats raised our LDL or “bad” cholesterol, and lower our “good” cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease. Some doctors call it “the worst type of fat you can eat.” The Danes limited trans fats in 2003 for that reason, and figured out how to make the country’s signature pastry without it, and the FDA estimates it could save thousands of lives each year in the U.S. through its restrictions.

(Meanwhile, there’s been increasing evidence that some fats might be good for us, such as the fat found in coconut oil and avocados, which we now may be loving too much. No wonder we’re confused!)

Since the FDA has been aiming at trans fats for years, and has required it on the nutrition label of foods sold in the U.S. since 2006, most major food companies have worked out ways to replace the trans fat they once relied on with other ingredients, so there won’t likely be major taste disruptions in our favorite snack foods.

Now technically, what FDA has done is not a ban, as the Grocery Manufacturers of America point out. The FDA just reclassified the status of trans fats, which allows foodmakers to petition the agency for an exemption. But don’t expect too many petitions. “It’s important to know that food and beverage companies have already voluntarily lowered the amount of PHOs added to products by more than 86 percent—and are continuing to lower usage even further,” says Leon Bruner, executive vice president and chief science officer at GMA, in a recent blog post.

In fact, it was pretty hard to find items at my local Target store recently that contain any trans fat, with notable exceptions, such as Movie Theater Butter flavored Pop Secret Popcorn (the highest I saw, 4.5 grams of trans fat per serving), some Slim Jim meat sticks (0.5 g), and certain types of Nabisco cookies, all less than 1 g of trans fat per serving.

According to FDA, trans fat still lurks in some non-dairy creamers, stick margarine, and processed dough items in the freezer aisle, but it’s fair to say, trans fats’ days are likely numbered.

Still, it will be in “fast food french fries, doughnuts—the usual places,” at least until 2018, says Katherine Tallmadge, dietician and author of Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations.

“Restaurants and processed foods will have trouble finding substitutes,” she predicts. Butter or lard are the likely replacements, “but they are more expensive and have a shorter shelf life, so foods like this may end up being more expensive,” Tallmadge says.

And then there are a few holdouts, notably smaller establishments with historic recipes, including Bergers cookies, a famous treat made in Baltimore since the 1800s that’s basically a soft white cake with a generous dollop of rich chocolate fudge on top. It has 1g of trans fat per serving, which is one cookie, according to the nutrition label.

A couple of years ago, the Bergers baker told the Baltimore Sun he would have to shut down operations if trans fat was blocked, because he had not found a good substitute for the shortening he uses. Now he has three more years to work it out.

Then again, who knows what new fat science will pop out three years from now?