Three years after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled artificial trans fats unsafe for consumption in 2015, the agency announced on Monday that it is officially banning the ingredient from all foods sold in U.S. restaurants and groceries.
As recalled by the Washington Post, it was in 2015 when the FDA gave food manufacturers three years to remove vegetable oil-based artificial trans fats from their products. This came after numerous studies and statements from public health advocates declared that the ingredient was instrumental in increasing levels of harmful cholesterol in the human body, thereby resulting in a greater risk of heart disease. As such, June 18 mainly marked the deadline for companies to take action and remove trans fats from their recipes, and possibly the “final chapter” in the fight against them.
“The elimination of artificial trans fat from the food supply represents a historic and long-fought victory for public health,” read a statement from former Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael F. Jacobson.
“Ridding the food supply of partially hydrogenated oils will save tens of thousands of lives each year.”
Thanks to the aforementioned studies and attempts to increase awareness of the risks of artificial trans fat consumption, many food companies made substantial changes to recipes that had, in many cases, been in place for several decades. Artificial trans fats were first conceived in the early 20th century but had only become mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s, as food manufacturers used the ingredient to improve the texture of processed food and extend their shelf life.
Artificial trans fats are created by injecting hydrogen atoms into vegetable fat molecules, with the altered chemical structure apparently driving the body to create higher levels of bad cholesterol. According to Men’s Health, these fats were normally found in products such as cookies, doughnuts, frozen pizzas, margarine, and pie crust, and were often a key ingredient in the oil used by restaurants, as oil with artificial trans fats doesn’t need to be changed so frequently.
In the decades that followed, consumers from around the world purchased and ate products with artificial trans fat content without thinking of any possible consequence, but the early 1990s saw the first wave of studies linking these trans fats to heart disease. The Washington Post stressed that there are natural trans fats found in some animal proteins, but medical literature has yet to establish a firm link connecting the natural variant to heart disease and related conditions.
Statistics from the Grocery Manufacturers Association cited by the Washington Post suggest that American food companies reduced trans fat content by 86 percent between 2003 and 2015, and did so by altering recipes for various products, including Jell-O and Wheat Thins, to name a few. The organization added that these manufacturers took an even bigger step between 2015 and the current year, with 98 percent of all trans fat content removed from their products.
Although the changes were instituted in an attempt to make food products healthier for consumers, there have been some companies that insisted to the FDA that they still needed artificial trans fats to make their foods more flavorful, or to grease industrial baking pans. To this end, the agency announced in May that these companies would have another year to find trans fat alternatives.
Artificial trans fats are still comparatively widespread in certain parts of the world, but public health officials from other high-income countries have been making similar moves to remove the ingredients from food supplies. The World Health Organization, however, warned that more action needs to be taken in emerging countries, to ensure that the health benefits of curbing trans fats are “felt equally around the world.”