What could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease a year?
Ding ding ding! The answer is … trans fats.
That astonishing reduction in death and disease isn’t brought about by surgery, medication, or any heroic measure. It’s diet.
While saturated fats have been bashed for decades for causing heart disease, high cholesterol, and strokes, it’s trans fat that’s the real bad guy. (Saturated fat may not be so bad after all anyways.) Trans fat is an artificially produced form of fat that has hydrogen added to it to make the structure more stable. That translates to a longer shelf-life and other seemingly positive characteristics like increasing spreadability (I’m looking at you, margarine). I’d like to think I didn’t graduate from college that long ago, which may or may not be true, but we definitely learned that margarine was a better option than butter early on in my classes. By the time I’d achieved my license as a Registered Dietitian, that was already changing. Butter was the fat of choice again and margarine was evil.
It can be tough to keep up with what’s good and bad when it comes to nutrition, as every piece of research helps us dig deeper and deeper into what’s really happening in our bodies. But one thing that seems to have become clear is that trans fats shouldn’t be on our grocer’s shelves or our dinner plates. Though people have only been hearing about trans fats for a little over five years, they’ve been around much, much longer. The public knowledge of trans fats came about when the FDA passed a new labeling law that required trans fats to be on the Nutrition Facts label. Since they could no longer hide their existence, companies slowly started removing trans fats from their products. The NY Times reports that consumers decreased their trans fat intake from 4.6 grams a day to 1 gram a day following this law. The problem here is that companies are legally allowed to put a zero when there is less than half a gram of trans fat per serving, which could easily add up without you even knowing it.
This morning the FDA announced an even better solution: ban trans fats entirely. It may still be six months or a year until this gets put into action, but it’s currently open for public comment for the next 60 days. The FDA will then go from there in planning and implementing the ban. The first step will likely be to remove partially hydrogenated oils (a huge source of trans fats) from the “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) list, since they are clearly not recognized as safe. Companies that want to use an ingredient not on this list have to petition the FDA, which in the case of trans fats, would likely be turned down. This means a lot of changes for a lot of companies, as even trace amounts of trans fat can be found in all sorts of packaged foods from coffee creamers to popcorn to frozen pizza and beyond. What this means from a household point of view is that my husband can no longer come home from a rare solo grocery shopping trip and declare he didn’t bring home any trans fat when he really did.
This step is monumental and long overdue, especially when we look to our government for guidance on health matters. Removing a harmful ingredient from shelves keeps the decision out of the consumer’s hands and in turn protects their health. Former NY health commissioner and current director of the disease centers Dr. Thomas R. Frieden states “It’s quite important … It’s going to save a huge amount in health care costs and will mean fewer heart attacks.”
It took from the initial proposal in 1999 for the trans fat labeling law to take effect in 2006. Let’s hope this one doesn’t take as long.