A final farewell to artificial trans fat

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the deadline for industry to stop producing foods with artificial trans fat is June 15. The deadline is  June 18. This post has been updated.

Do you check the ingredients list on food labels for “partially hydrogenated oil”?

It’s increasingly hard to find. That’s because Monday marks the deadline for the food industry to stop producing foods that contain artificial trans fat.

Once ubiquitous in microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, biscuits, margarines, frostings, and other foods, artificial trans fat is now hard to find.

Monday’s deadline comes just over 14 years after the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action‘s publisher, asked the Food and Drug Administration to revoke partially hydrogenated oil’s status as safe for use in foods.

As a result, the heart-disease-promoting factory-made fat, once ubiquitous in restaurant deep fryers and in pastries, pie crusts, microwave popcorns, margarines and shortenings, and thousands of other packaged foods, is now virtually gone from the food supply.

“The elimination of artificial trans fat from the food supply represents a historic and long-fought victory for public health,” said CSPI senior scientist and former executive director Michael F. Jacobson, who led CSPI’s efforts to get artificial trans fat out of foods. “Ridding the food supply of partially hydrogenated oils will save tens of thousands of lives each year.”

How we got here

In the early 1990s, evidence began to mount that partially hydrogenated oils were powerful promoters of heart disease. Trans fat elevates LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, while lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

In 1993, Dr. Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published the first large study on trans fat and the risk of coronary heart disease. It showed a striking increase in risk with higher intake.

“At the time of peak usage, industrially produced trans fats in packaged and restaurant foods were contributing to about 50,000 early deaths annually,” said Dr. Willett. “Now that partially hydrogenated oils are virtually gone, it’s remarkable that nobody really misses them—not consumers, and for the most part, not even the food industry. But the entire food supply is safer as a result.”

In 2006, a typical three-piece Extra Crispy combo meal from KFC—a drumstick, two thighs, potato wedges, and a biscuit—contained a staggering 15 grams of artificial trans fat. That’s more than a person should consume in a week. Today, the same meal at KFC has zero grams of trans fat. In 2002, a serving of Little Debbie Zebra Cakes had seven grams of trans fat. Today, it has zero grams.

“The food industry once used about eight billion pounds of partially hydrogenated oil annually,” Jacobson said. “Replacing that with healthier oils was an enormous undertaking. Manufacturers and restaurants, oil producers, seed developers, and farmers all deserve great credit for making the transition.”

For more information, read the full press release from CSPI or view a timeline of the 25-year campaign to eliminate artificial trans fat from the food supply.


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