What's the Big Deal About Transfats?

What if your risk of having a major stroke or heart attack could be significantly reduced without making a single change in diet or physical activity? Given cardiovascular events affect our community at about twice the rate of the general population, such a shift would help reverse a huge disparity in our health and longevity. Clearly it is tremendously beneficial for all of us to eat healthfully and exercise regularly - but what if a single change in the foods placed on supermarket shelves could help us prevent heart disease before we even filled our shopping carts?

Well, that proposition is a very real possibility as the FDA deliberates over whether to take partially hydrogenated oils (the primary source of trans-fats) off of the GRAS list - a list of items ‘generally recognized as safe’ for human consumption.

Trans-fats are generally found in foods that line the inner aisles of our supermarkets as well as the frozen food section. Frozen pizzas, processed and packaged snack items, cakes, coffee creamers, ready-to-use icing and microwave popcorn are some of the most common items where trans-fats are found. Since 2006, manufacturers have been required to state that their products contain trans-fats on the primary labels. 

So what’s so special about trans-fats that special committees have been formed to review their safety? Well, unlike other fats, trans-fats have a very distinctive shape that makes them highly reactive and thus prone to causing a whole host of changes in the body. Namely, research shows that trans-fats raise LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”) and lower HDL cholesterol (“good cholesterol”), cause inflammation and may even cause the liver to make new fat from sugar. In addition, trans-fats increase the level of triglycerides (fat) in our blood which can cause it to take on a more yellowish color. Albeit not conclusively, experimental studies have also linked trans-fats to diabetes and weight gain. 

All of the effects of high trans-fat intake cited-- harmful cholesterol changes, triglyceride elevation, inflammation etc.---can wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system, leading to stroke, heart attack and death. According to the CDC, the average U.S. intake of trans-fats in 2010 was down from 4.6 grams/day in the 1990‘s to approximately 1.3 grams per day. It is estimated that further reduction in intake could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 coronary deaths a year. In addition to the invaluable cost of human life, the economic benefits of largely eliminating trans-fats from our diets sum to an estimated 105 billion dollars over a 20 year period. Provided the weight of the evidence against consumption of trans-fats, the FDA recently issued a “Federal Register notice” publicly announcing their preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not safe for human consumption at any level and that our intake should be as low as possible. 

If the FDA’s preliminary determination is finalized, partially hydrogenated oils would be classified as food additives. Food additives can not be included in food products without express permission from the FDA. After the release of the FDA notice, standard procedure provides commercial and public stakeholders with the opportunity to comment in support or opposition of the proposed change. The comment period usually lasts for 60 days but a request for extension may lengthen that period another 60 days past the current January 7th deadline. 

In addition to industry feedback, the FDA welcomes and encourages commentary from consumers. Parent groups concerned with children's health and food justice are a great place to link up and get ongoing information. To lend your voice to the growing public conversation and let the FDA know you support their preliminary decision on trans-fats click here.

Chinara Tate is currently a pre-doctoral student at Teachers College-Columbia University, where she is pursuing studies in nutrition and neurocognition and passionately engaging in clinical work that will enable families in economically disadvantaged and underrepresented communities to engage in making healthy food choices.