The Food and Drug Administration’s recent decision to phase out partially hydrogenated oils, the source of most trans fat in the U.S. food supply, serves as the final nail in the coffin for the artificial ingredient in the American food industry.
The decision has sparked little controversy – surprising, given that bans of large sodas, cigarettes and Styrofoam can generate thousands of protests. However, trans fats have been widely criticized for years, and have long been on the way out in the food industry. “Trans fats were relatively easy to ban because the evidence for their harm is substantial and substitutes are available,” says Marion Nestle, a food studies professor at New York University.
Once hailed as the healthy alternative to animal fats and butter, health advocacy groups have been working to ban trans fats since the early 1990s. The FDA implemented a rule in 2006 requiring manufacturers list trans fat on nutrition labels. One year later, New York City banned the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and spreads– the bulk of trans fat in food– in restaurants. In 2012, trans fats in school lunches were severely diminished under new guidelines issued by the Department of Agriculture.
A 2012 report of fast-food chains’ lunch receipts revealed that the average trans fat content of customers’ meals dropped from about three grams to 0.5 grams after the New York City ban was enacted.
Of course, traces of trans fat are still apparent in some of the food we eat. The most common culprits for trans fat include popcorn, canned frosting, coffee creamers and baked goods. With many of these products, consumers may not even know they’re eating trans fat; the FDA allows products with under 0.5 grams of trans fat to be classified as having zero grams trans fat on their nutrition labels.
“This is problematic as those half grams can add up – like when you eat two servings of packaged cookies or one serving of cookies with a cup of coffee with packaged coffee creamer,” says Beth Vallen, a professor at Fordham Schools of Business specializing in consumer goals and self-control in consumer health.
The FDA predicts that banning trans fats for good would prevent up to 20,000 cases of health disease and 7,000 deaths every year.
While trans fat’s demise has been met with little resistance, the question remains: what does this mean for other unhealthy foods?
“I have no idea what the FDA is working on, but I sure hope they are planning to label added sugars,” says Nestle.
Vallen says it is possible similar bans could follow. “As we understand more about the effects of [preservatives and additives] on our health, it’s certainly possible that other items may go the way of trans fats.”