Skip to main content

Goodbye and good riddance, trans fats

By Aaron Carroll, Special to CNN
November 9, 2013 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
The Food and Drug Administration recently took a step toward eliminating most trans fat from our food. The government agency said it has made a preliminary determination that a major source of trans fats -- partially hydrogenated oils -- is no longer "generally recognized as safe." If the FDA's decision is finalized, partially hydrogenated oils will become food additives that could no longer be used without approval. <!-- -->
</br><!-- -->
</br><i>Source: The American Heart Association's "</i><i><a href='http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/FatsAndOils/Fats101/A-History-of-Trans-Fat_UCM_301463_Article.jsp' target='_blank'>A History of Trans Fat</a></i><i>" </i> The Food and Drug Administration recently took a step toward eliminating most trans fat from our food. The government agency said it has made a preliminary determination that a major source of trans fats -- partially hydrogenated oils -- is no longer "generally recognized as safe." If the FDA's decision is finalized, partially hydrogenated oils will become food additives that could no longer be used without approval.

Source: The American Heart Association's "A History of Trans Fat"
HIDE CAPTION
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
The history of trans fat
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The FDA took a first step toward eliminating artificial trans fats in food supply
  • Aaron Carroll: FDA made the right move, since trans fats are very bad for people
  • He says evidence shows trans fats increase bad cholesterol and heart disease
  • Carroll: It's likely food suppliers will comply despite the costs of removing trans fats

Editor's note: Aaron E. Carroll is a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the director of its Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research. He has supported a single-payer health system during the reform debate. He blogs about health policy at The Incidental Economist and tweets at @aaronecarroll.

(CNN) -- The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday took a step toward essentially a total ban on artificial trans fats in America's food supply.

This is not a trivial change. Not that long ago, trans fats were a part of all kinds of processed foods. Partially hydrogenated oils, as they are otherwise known, tend to improve both the shelf life and flavor of many foods. Trans fats have been around for more than a hundred years. They're used in a wide range of foods, from frozen pizza to microwave popcorn to packaged cookies.

But trans fats are amazingly bad for you. By the 1990s, evidence was building that trans fats carried a significant risk for increasing coronary heart disease. Specifically, they were found not only to increase your level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or bad cholesterol) but to decrease your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or good cholesterol). Because of this, the negative effects of trans fats are about double those of saturated fat (which isn't that good for you, either).

It gets worse. Trans fats also increase your level of lipoprotein(a) and triglycerides, both of which are thought to be associated with cardiovascular disease.

These laboratory findings bear out in all kinds of epidemiologic studies showing that a diet containing higher levels of trans fats carried greater health risk than a diet similarly high in saturated fat.

Aaron Carroll
Aaron Carroll

There has been a longstanding argument that we should stop using trans fats. The American Heart Association recommends that people's diets contain 2 grams or less of trans fats a day. That amount is what you might normally get in dairy products and meat. But if you eat processed foods, you'll end up consuming more trans fats.

In 2006, the FDA started mandating that food labels list the amount of trans fats in foods in order to make consumers aware of their hazard.

Some companies have made an effort to stay away from trans fats. McDonalds stopped using them 7 years ago. Burger King has a minimal amount in its foods, and that's from small amounts that are present naturally in meat and cheese. New York banned trans fats in restaurants in 2007. It was a controversial decision at the time, but consumption of trans fats in the city has dropped dramatically because of the ban.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that removing trans fats from the U.S. food supply could prevent about 20,000 heart attacks a year and 7,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Finally, the FDA issued a Federal Register notice announcing that trans fats are not "generally recognized as safe." Such a notice allows a period of time for people and businesses to comment and offer opinions and evidence if they believe that trans fats should not be banned.

FDA takes aim at trans fats

Of course, there are costs to such a move. The FDA estimates that it will cost about $8 billion initially to remove trans fats from the food supply. It believes the 20-year costs to be between $12 billion and $14 billion.

I think it's likely that processed food producers will comply. There's almost no good evidence -- or argument -- to support the continued use of trans fats. In fact, it's been reported that some manufacturers have voluntarily lowered the use of trans fats by almost 75% in the past eight years. Given these moves, it's not hard to imagine them going the rest of the distance.

There is some irony in this, of course. Trans fats first became more common in our diet because they were believed to be safer than animal fats (think margarine instead of butter). Turns out the opposite is true. The FDA's actions are putting us on the road to correcting that mistake, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron Carroll.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 29, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT