Trans fat from partially hydrogenated oil: the condemned killer that got a reprieve

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April 2, 2015


The next additive on our list of the top ten to be avoided in our countdown toward Read Your Labels Day 2015 is one we decided deserves to be much closer to the top than it was last year. That’s because it’s the only one on this list that the Food and Drug Administration acknowledges is a killer – but still can’t seem to bring itself to do something about.

Number 2: Partially hydrogenated oil, or PHO (a.k.a. trans fat)

Its purpose is mainly to extend the shelf life of the products to which it’s added.  But in the process, partially hydrogenated oil can also shorten the lives of those who consume it by clogging their arteries with trans fat.  Not only do they increase LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, but they decrease your “good”  HDL cholesterol. After estimating that 20,000 Americans suffer heart attacks every year and 7,000 die from the effects of PHO, the FDA in 2013 proposed that it be taken off the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list and phased out of processed food. In fact, it was widely assumed at the time that a prohibition on trans fat was already a ‘done deal’ – for example, Dr. Mark Hyman, writing in the Huffington Post, began by saying,  “Thank God! Trans fats are banned at last”.

But nearly a year and a half later, the initiative remains stalled, while this lethal substance remains in many products, particularly things like cookies and baked goods.

How many products? Well, at the beginning of September, a study by the New York Department of Health and Public and Mental Hygiene found that one in 10 processed foods still contained PHOs – and that 84 percent of those products are labeled as having “zero trans fats.” How do they get away with doing that?  By taking advantage of what we call the “trans fat loophole,” which allows any amount less than 0.5 percent to be reduced to “zero” on the label (never mind that there’s no really “safe” amount—or that the actual amounts consumed can easily exceed that threshold).

But the increased risk of dying from a heart attack isn’t the only reported result of consuming such products. Last November, researchers at the University of California in San Diego found they may also act to impair memory after testing 1,000 young and middle-aged men who had not yet been diagnosed with heart disease after having them fill out questionnaires about their dietary habits.  The subjects were given a “recurrent word” in which they were asked to remember whether certain words had already been shown to them on a series of 104 flash cards. When the results were compiled, it was found that the ones who ate the most PHOs could recall 11 or 12 fewer words than their peers, even when other factors were taken into account.

Study author Dr. Beatrice Golomb, a professor of medicine at the college, described that as “a pretty big detriment to function,” given that the average number of words accurately recalled was 86. In fact, the researchers were able to estimate that every additional gram a day of trans fat consumed resulted inh 0.76 fewer words committed to memory. Golomb hypothesized that trans fats do far more than damage the cardiovascular system.  She considers them to be “metabolic poisons” whose energy-sapping oxidative effects can effectively put brain cells that retain memories out of commission and even cause them to die off.

PHOs must go? Not so fast!

Now, given all that, you’d think the FDA wouldn’t waste any time in banishing this heart- and-brain-damaging ingredient from grocery shelves. After all, protecting us from things like that is their job, isn’t it?

You might think so.  But the fact that nothing further has happened since the phase-out was proposed (with a lot of accompanying hoopla) would seem to indicate that the agency is having second thoughts. Could it be that a little pushback in the form of comments from industry (among the more than 1,500 received on the proposal during the comment period) is all it takes to clog the gears at the FDA as surely as PHOs clog our arteries?

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, for example, urged the agency to replace its proposed ban on PHOs “with a fundamentally different approach that will achieve a policy aim that will be supported by consumers, industry and the agency.” Such a “prudent” course of action, the GMA maintained, could consist of  a “less onerous proposal that builds on already existing programs that are successfully driving trans fat consumption to lower levels,” lest the food supply be significantly disrupted and consumers “unjustifiably denied access to products such as baked goods, pastries, confectioneries, some flavors, seasonings and many other products.”

A similar sentiment was voiced by Mark B. Andon, Ph.D., vice-president, research, quality and innovation at ConAgra Foods, Omaha, who contended that dropping the GRAS status of PHOs “would place potentially thousands of food products at risk of being deemed adulterated due to the presence of an ingredient that has been safely and commonly used in foods for over 50 years.”

The food giant General Mills likewise expressed the opinion that “current low intakes of trans fat are safe” and suggested that a level of trans fat below 0.2 grams per serving either be established as the new “zero” (as did the American Bakers Association) or become a “threshold limit.”

As an apparent result, we were told back in September by Marianna Naum, Ph.D. of the Strategic Communications and Public Engagement Staff of the FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine: “We continue to review comments to the proposal and at this time aren’t able to conjecture on date of next action.” When contacted late last week, she indicated that had not changed.

In other words, this condemned killer has been given an apparent reprieve – at least for now.  But that doesn’t mean you want to let it into your house – and the best way to keep your family safe is to check all processed food packages for the presence of “partially hydrogenated oil” before you check them out of the supermarket.