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FDA Bans Trans Fats—Commentary

07/10/15 Adrienne Youdim, MD, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA|Cedars Sinai Medical Center|Dehl Nutrition;

The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that trans fats would be banned from use in food and that there is a 3-year deadline for their removal. A recent Manuals news article reported on this ban.

Trans fats are a type of fat used to prepare some commercially produced foods. Typical examples include fried foods like chicken nuggets and French fries, baked goods such as cookies and pastries, and packaged foods like granola and breakfast bars. Although some foods contain tiny amounts of naturally occurring trans fats, nearly all the trans fats consumed by Americans are artificially produced. Trans fats have been widely used by food manufacturers in the United States because they are stable during deep frying at high temperatures. Also, use of trans fats increases the shelf life of packaged foods and enhances the palatability, or "mouth feel," of baked foods.

The ill effects of trans fats have been well known for decades. Trans facts have a negative impact on the levels of fats and cholesterol in the blood. Trans fats increase the amount of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, and they reduce the amount of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in the blood. LDL cholesterol is the "bad" cholesterol that increases the risk of atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries). HDL cholesterol is the "good" cholesterol that helps reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. Overall, the consumption of trans fats significantly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. Doctors have estimated that removing trans fats from the diet would reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes by 20%.

The abundance of scientific data supporting the harmful effects of trans fats prompted the FDA to require manufacturers to label foods that contain trans fats. Many manufacturers cut down on the amount of trans fats used in their products. However, a loophole in the FDA mandate allowed manufacturers to label a food product as having zero trans fat so long as there was less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. In essence, not zero grams. While the labeling effectively reduced Americans' daily trans fat consumption by 80%, from 4.6 grams to 1 gram, the regulation did not eliminate trans fats. The FDA's new ban on trans fats will go into effect in 3 years, allowing time for manufacturers to find alternatives or petition for continued use in limited circumstances.

It is worth noting that small amounts of trans fats occur naturally in dairy products and meat from cows and other ruminating animals, so complete and total elimination will not be possible. However, elimination of trans fats from processed foods will go a long way toward reducing Americans' risk of cardiovascular disease.

See Dr. Youdim's discussions of Nutrition and Obesity in the Manuals.