Trans fats: FDA loses patience with recalcitrant US fats and oils industry

Food companies hate the idea of being regulated i.e. having the government tell them what to do. However, with freedom in the marketplace comes responsibility. The best way to avoid regulation is for an industry to do the right thing by its customers and health authorities when a problem with the industry’s products is identified.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration recently announced that partially hydrogenated oils (containing trans fats) were no longer ‘Generally Regarded as Safe’ and gave the fats and oils industry three years to get them out of the food supply. So, begrudgingly, the US industry will be forced to adopt a position that companies in the rest of the developed world adopted 20 years ago.

A brief history of trans fats

Health reviews of trans fats conducted in the 1970s and 1980s found little to be concerned about. The food-health relationship considered important at the time was the effect on the level of total cholesterol in the blood and trans fats seemed to be okay – the effect was similar to that of olive oil.

This all changed in 1990 when researchers broadened their investigations to consider the effects of trans fats on LDL-cholesterol and HDL-cholesterol. Unlike any other class of fatty acids, trans fats raised the ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol and lowered the ‘good’ HDL-cholesterol – a double negative effect. Trans fats had a worse effect on blood lipids than any other fat or carbohydrate.

Soon afterwards researchers at Harvard found trans fats to be associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease in their large population studies. In Australia, both the National Health and Medical Research Council (1992) and the Heart Foundation (1994) flagged a potential problem with trans fats.

The industry response

To their credit, major fats and oils companies in Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia didn’t wait for their governments to tell them what to do. These companies were abreast of the science, took the initiative, made the necessary investment and began to remove trans fats from their products. In Australia, the process to remove trans fats from margarines began in 1995 and by 1998 almost all of the top brands of margarine in the country were virtually free of trans fats. During the 2000s a second wave of trans fat reduction ensued as major food companies combed through their ingredients lists tracking down any sources of trans fat. As a consequence trans fats now comprise just 0.5% of the calories in the Australian diet, most of which comes from dairy fat and meat fat. This is well below the maximum intake recommended by the World Health Organisation (1.0% of calories).

In Denmark, the trans fat content of the diet has fallen about 85% since the 1970s. Sometimes this fall is wrongly attributed to a regulation imposing a limit on the content of trans fats in food ingredients, which was introduced in Denmark in 2003. By far the majority of the fall in the trans fat content of the Danish diet occurred prior to 2000 as the fats and oils companies fulfilled their social responsibility. Interestingly, the trans fat content of the Danish and Australian diets, one subject to regulation of trans fats and one unregulated, are similar. The Danish diet is actually a little higher, presumably due to the Danes’ love of dairy products.

Ignoring all this, fats and oils companies in the United States maintained their love affair with trans fats. This is hard to comprehend as much of the observational data showing that trans fats were a problem was being generated in United States by American researchers. What were these companies thinking? So, two decades on and many premature deaths from coronary heart disease later, the FDA has had to step in and force the industry’s hand.

Image: source

Butter: an interesting anomaly

While the FDA will now expect manufacturers of coffee creamers, crackers, biscuits, cakes and stick margarines to virtually eliminate trans fats from their products there remains an interesting anomaly – butter. The FDA’s consumer information sheet on trans fats states in big letters ‘Selecting foods with even small amounts of trans fat can add up to a significant intake’. Butter has about 3-5% of its fatty acids and therefore 3-5% of its calories as trans fats. Once partially hydrogenated oils are removed from the food supply butter becomes one of the richest sources of trans fats.

The dairy industry likes to tell us that these trans fats are ‘natural’ and therefore not a problem. But the facts of the matter are that at least 10 of the trans fats in butter are the same as those found in partially hydrogenated oils. Not surprisingly, dairy trans fats have similar adverse effects on blood lipids to those in partially hydrogenated oils. Butter is actually made of partially hydrogenated oils – cows eat lots of unsaturated fats from grass and seeds; these fats are then partially hydrogenated in the rumen of the cow to yield lots of saturated fat plus some trans fats, which end up in the meat and milk of the cow. Although this bio-hydrogenation may be considered ‘natural’ its consequences are not good and no amount of public relations spin can make it so.

So will butter’s ‘Generally Regarded as Safe’ status be withdrawn by the FDA in the near future? Not likely. The dairy lobby is the best in the business. But what will the regulators do when biscuit manufacturers replace their current baking fats (with trans fats) with butter (with trans fats)?

The good news for the Australian public is that current advice to replace saturated fats like dairy and meat fat with unsaturated fats is also the best advice for further lowering trans fat intake.


14 thoughts on “Trans fats: FDA loses patience with recalcitrant US fats and oils industry

  1. “But what will the regulators do when biscuit manufacturers replace their current baking fats (with trans fats) with butter (with trans fats)?”

    You probably know more about this than I do, but I think the reason that butter isn’t already used is that it’s not stable enough for long life items like baked goods. It goes stale.

    Though I’m really annoyed at the dairy industry pushing the idea that ‘their’ trans fats are okay. I’ve actually been fooled by the deluge of articles promoting dairy and full fat dairy items and claiming they’re not harmful to heart health, and so had been allowing spouse to eat more cheese, and I’ve been eating stuff like full fat greek yoghurt. (The dairy industry has been aided in this by the paleo nuts pushing the ‘saturated fat is harmless’ line, even though they eschew dairy.)

    Your post was a short sharp reminder to *always* check the facts. I do wonder about the time bomb being set up when all these paleo/dairy lovers are confronted by what their arteries look like in their late middle/old age.

  2. Go on the website of companies making baking industry oils in Australia, and you can see some high trans fat oils there. Why isn’t this noticed?

  3. A couple of things … you may be being a bit hard on the American processed food industry. It’s not as if (as you seem to believe) they have spent the last two or three decades churning out foods laden with partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils unchecked. The peak body Grocery Manufacturers of America says that the level of trans fatty acids in their products has fallen by over 86% (I can’t find where their baseline date is, however), and in their Federal Register notice the FDA estimated that the level of intake of trans fats from processed food has fallen from 4.6 g in 2003 (in adults) to 1.3 g in 2010 (in all persons over the age of two, so the two numbers aren’t directly translatable). A dietary recall study in the Minneapolis-St Paul, MN metropolitan area found that between 1980/82 and 2007/09, trans fat intake fell by about 36%.

    On the other hand, while these reductions occurred in the absence of a formal regulation on amounts, they did come largely in response to government regulation: to wit, FDA’s requirement that food companies start labeling the amount of trans fat in processed foods in the “Nutrition Facts” box starting in 2005/06. While there had been some minor reformulations previously, this move led to a full-on push to purge trans-fatty acids from most packaged foods, or at least to lower them below the 0.5 g/serving threshold level.

    On butter: I very much doubt that there will be any action. Butter is (a) a traditional food, and not an engineered product (no, that isn’t a scientific distinction, but it’s an intuitive one that I guarantee will weigh on the minds of regulators); (b) a very minor source of trans-fatty acids compared to partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils; and (c) too darned expensive and unstable to put into processed foods in significant amounts. In terms of fats and public health, the next priority areas would be the palm (and to some extent coconut) oil that has been introduced to replace most of the partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil in processed food — not butter.

    • Walter Willett, Harvard School of Public Health, has seen this post. Here are his comments:

      I think this is generally on target. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to lump all the US industries together….some were responsible and eliminated trans fats, but part of the industry have obstructed every effort to reduce intake, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is the industry organization. This has resulted in tens of thousands of premature deaths….they have blood on their hands. Even now, with the FDA action, they are trying every possible delaying tactic.

      As for dairy fat, the FDA action specifically refers to partially hydrogenated vegetable fats, so this does not include dairy. I’m not making an effort to take on the trans fat in dairy fat because I think it is better to consider dairy fat as a package, and it is clearly not an optimal fat, but not something we would ban. We have just had a paper accepted looking specifically at dairy fat compared to other sources of calories as they predict risk of CHD…as expected, it is clearly worse than nonhydrogenated vegetable oils and whole grains, and similar to refined carbohydrates.


    • One assumes you aren’t suffering some bizarre form of Tourette’s Syndrome, Jenny, but are referring to conjugated linoleic acid. Which seems to have some beneficial effects…

      In rodents.

      In humans (and pigs), apart from some very *very* small trials, eg

      no consistent beneficial effect has been shown.

      I’m sure, as you claim to be a scientist, you will recognise that what affects mice, doesn’t necessarily or even often work the same way in humans.

      • “Groups of adult male HHTg rats were fed a high-carbohydrate diet (70% sucrose) with a 2% mixture of CLA isomers, or with the same amount of sunflower oil (control group) for 2 mo.”

        Once again, your link does not say what you think it does.

        Rats != humans. There is no current research demonstrating consistent benefit in humans.

        “it is useful to see that they are not all equally bad!”

        You have presented no evidence whatsoever for this statement, and I can find none, either despite the best effort of the vested interests of the dairy, palm oil and coconut shill industries. There is no evidence at all that any trans fat has a non-detrimental effect on cardiac heart disease or vascular health.

        “No I don’t have Tourette’s!”

        Amazing. One disease you aren’t claiming as your own.

  4. “I’m sorry Chris I didn’t realise I needed to fill in all the gaps for you!”

    You didn’t even provide a link to the paper you were citing – I had to find that on my own (or perhaps you hoped I wouldn’t).

    “Of course rats are different to humans! But that does not mean rat studies have no relevance.”

    If you are talking about an area where findings in rodents cannot be replicated in humans (or pigs), then they’re not relevant. When they find those results consistently in humans, then talk about how wonderful trans fats are.

    “Whether you like it or not rats and mice are used widely by nutrition scientists”

    No, really? Did you learn that in your science degree? Did you learn also that non-human species are imperfect models for humans all too often? (and that’s before you get into sex differences in humans.)

    “The multitude of CLA studies demonstrates that not all trans fats are being regarded as equally problematic.”

    No, they do not. All they indicate is that (a) there is a lot of money being poured into this research by a group of vested interests and (b) research is being carried out. Nothing has demonstrated that CLA is (a) beneficial in humans or (b) beneficial enough to counteract the ill effects of trans fat consumption.

    All your comment proves is that you are still shilling for the paleo nutjobs and their crazy ideas about saturated fat and coconut oil. Their assessment of trans and saturated fats do not have a basis in scientific reality, and what you are saying is both false and dangerous. The only slight consolation is that the paleo believers are all likely to die early from heart disease and once that starts happening, then maybe the rest will see the error of their ways.

    • “Chris you are really getting a bit worked up and carried away!”

      I’m not the one spraying exclamation points everywhere, or calling people idiotic. And I did warn you I would pick at your claims.

      “I did not say, nor do I think, that trans fats are wonderful! I have conscientiously avoided them for years!”

      And yet you have to pop up in a post where Bill is reporting the FDA’s decision, to point out “they are not all equally harmful and some of them may have some benefits (especially CLA)” without stopping to think that people’s ingestion of trans fats do not happen in isolation, and while they are scarfing this wonderful CLA through animal, palm and coconut fat, they are also getting a load of other trans fats and saturated fats.

      “One of Bill’s original points appeared to be the need to be cautious about butter! And one of your original points appeared to be that you had been allowing your husband to eat too much cheese.”

      Yes, because of the blatant lies being promoted in the media by the dairy/paleo interests. Like this guy does:

      “Does this mean we should avoid all grass-fed animal products, cut out red meat, and only eat fat-free dairy if we want to reduce our risk of heart disease? Not at all! These naturally occurring trans fats in ruminant animal products are not at all harmful to our health, and may actually reduce the development of many different chronic diseases.”

      Note, apart from the weasel words “may actually reduce the development of many different chronic diseases” , how the issue of saturated fats is just handwaved away, because paleo supporters don’t believe saturated fats are harmful.

      They fooled me. You should be so proud.

      “My point is that the trans fats in dairy may not be as harmful as some other trans fats.”

      And your point is wrong, so far as heart health is concerned, which is what the FDA is primarily concerned about:

      “Effect of Animal and Industrial Trans Fatty Acids on HDL and LDL Cholesterol Levels in Humans – A Quantitative Review”

      “Published data suggest that all fatty acids with a double bond in the trans configuration raise the ratio of plasma LDL to HDL cholesterol.”

      “Your assertion that the CLA studies are being funded by ‘paleo nutjobs’ is bizarre and ridiculous and unfounded.”

      Really? Why are there 356,000 results articles by paleo promoters all praising CLA when I search for ‘cla paleo’? All claiming health benefits which have not been proven?

      I could have also mentioned the booming growth in CLA supplement products, all being promoted without any actual evidence of real biological benefit or any effect on cancer.

      Who’s funding this research? Even in your own link, “Dr. Yeonhwa Park is one of the inventors of CLA use patents that are assigned to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation”. There’s money to be made from it.

      “Consider the conclusion from this study: Conjugated Linoleic Acid and Postmenopausal Women’s Health”

      As CLA was first identified as an anticarcinogenic component in beef in 1987 (Ha and others 1987), it has shown a wide range of biologically beneficial activities in human health. Current preclinical and clinical studies suggest the potential protective effects of CLA against postmenopausal bone loss and metabolic dysfunctions. CLA seems to display the estrogen antagonistic activities through the inhibition of ERα-mediated signaling in ER-positive cancer cells, however it is currently unknown whether the effects of CLA on ER signaling is tissue-specific. Based on current reports, CLA supplementation may have potential benefits to prevent or offset menopausal symptoms, however, further studies are still needed to determine the efficacy as well as the safety of CLA use in postmenopausal women and the action mechanism regarding estrogen metabolism.

      I’ve bolded all the bet-hedging and weasel words in this. Also “it has shown a wide range of biologically beneficial activities in human health” is not actually supported either in the text or through other studies. The most you can say is that it’s probably not harmful in isolation.

      That study also says “Based on a large clinical trial of the Women’s Health Initiative in 2002, it was concluded that overall health risks associated with estrogen replacement therapy exceeded benefits in postmenopausal women (Rossouw and others 2002).”

      That study is now out of date.

      “AND then stop being so idiotic!”

      Yes, Jenny. Trying to hold you to actual facts is definitely idiocy. I’m not going to stop though.

    • When are you going to comment on Walter Willet’s statement above, about dairy fat? Or is the truth inconvenient?

      Somehow I doubt you can teach me much about research.

  5. Nonsense is posting misinformation about the supposed health benefits of dairy fat. That’s you.

    My god, you claim to be a teacher and you come out with this level of insult and invective? You haven’t dealt with a single substantive point I’ve raised – because you’re incapable. Instead you mislead, misquote, and deflect, then turn to insults when all else fails.

    Typical paleo promoter.

    • Still no comment on Walter’s statement? And Bill agrees with me, not you. Why are you shrieking at me about ‘nonsense’ when he says straight up

      “The dairy industry likes to tell us that these trans fats are ‘natural’ and therefore not a problem. But the facts of the matter are that at least 10 of the trans fats in butter are the same as those found in partially hydrogenated oils. Not surprisingly, dairy trans fats have similar adverse effects on blood lipids to those in partially hydrogenated oils”

      You haven’t answered my point about your beloved CLA being eaten along with harmful saturated fat in all its natural sources (dairy or not). You haven’t demonstrated that CLA is not harmful, and certainly not when eaten with saturated fat. You mock me for proving to you that mouse models are not regarded as universally useful, and ignore what I’ve linked where it’s stated very clearly that mice study results on CLA have not been replicated in humans. And you cite one paper which is so heavily invested in promoting CLA that it uses outdated research to mislead readers into thinking HRT/oestrogen are contra-indicated for post-menopausal women.

      This is dangerous crap you’re pushing. It’s up there with antivaxxers in the degree of harm people who believe this rubbish can do to themselves and anyone they feed.

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