Banning Trans Fats: Good for Health or Overly Cautious?
If the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has its way, artificial trans fats will soon be disappearing from the American diet. And for good reason. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reducing trans fat consumption by avoiding artificial trans fats could prevent 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 coronary heart disease deaths each year in the United States.
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Trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils. “The hydrogenation of oils increase their shelf life and makes them behave more like butter,” explains metabolic disease expert Henry Pownall, Ph.D. “But we have much better storage conditions in the U.S. now, so this once-useful property is no longer needed. Also, a ban would be a relatively low burden on the companies that manufacture them.”
Pownall says that while some people consume too many trans fatty acids, the evidence is unclear about whether moderate consumption is safe. A ban on artificial trans fatty acids wouldn't necessarily mean the chemicals will disappear from our diets. A small amount of natural trans fatty acids can be found in the tissues of cows, sheep and goats.
It will be very difficult for food manufacturers to make the claim that trans fats are “Generally Recognized As Safe” (or GRAS) and taking it out of our food supply would be a great step toward a healthier America.
Standing Up for Americans’ Health
“I completely agree with the FDA’s decision,” says Dr. Joshua Septimus, an internist and clinical lipidologist with Houston Methodist Hospital, who doesn’t believe the FDA is being overly cautious. “I applaud the government for making a tough choice and standing up for Americans’ health rather than the vested interests of the processed food industry. Previous labeling of partially hydrogenated oils as ‘presumed to be safe’ is simply false. We know they cause heart disease, [which is] the leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, this is no different from banning a poison from food. Individuals may not die right away from trans fats, but as our understanding of the compounds has expanded, so has our realization that they slowly poison our arteries.”
Artificial trans fats, which are found in a wide range of foods including donuts, processed and packaged baked goods, microwavable popcorn and canned frosting, have been well documented to do only bad things in the body and are strongly linked to poor lipid levels and poor cardiovascular outcomes, explains Kristen Van Sickel, a registered dietician based in Houston, Texas. “In light of what we already know of trans fats and their clearly documented detrimental effects, I think the FDA’s ban would be a positive step towards changing the face of obesity,” she said.
Trans fatty acids have similar properties as saturated fats in that they both increase LDL “bad” cholesterol if consumed in excessive quantities. High LDL can be associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
"While there is some debate about whether saturated fats are as bad as once was believed," says Dr. Natalie Digate Muth, Senior Health Strategist for the American Council on Exercise, "everyone agrees that consumption of trans fats provides zero health benefits and serious health risks." She also notes that people are unlikely to notice the absence of trans fats from their diets.
“The FDA's ban on trans fat is a perfect example of how a public health intervention can help save lives,” Digate Muth says. "By decreasing availability of such a clearly dangerous food, the health of all Americans benefits."