Transitioning Away from Trans Fats

If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has its way, artificially made trans fats will transition from a mainstay of the American diet to a historical footnote.

In the United States (and elsewhere around the globe), trans fats show up in a bewildering array of food products, including margarine, shortening, salad dressings, baked goods of all varieties, and famously, French fries. Among everyone from legal scholars to fast food aficionados, a proposed ban on artificial trans fats – a food ingredient as American as (deep fried) apple pie has been one of more controversial moves in modern food history, raising issues ranging from the government’s right to regulate the foods we eat to the logical question “What took them so long?”

The FDA’s argument centers around the fact that fats are not created – nor are they processed by the body – equally. Some of them are more beneficial to human health than others, and at least one form – artificially made trans fat – seems to do no real nutritional good at all. Consumption of trans fats has been linked to an increased the risk of coronary heart disease by raising levels of the lipoprotein LDL “bad cholesterol”) and lowering levels of lipoprotein HDL (“good cholesterol”), and its existence is intertwined with Western food culture of modern era. Trans fats in the form of partially hydrogenated oils have been used in processed foods as a flavor stabilizer and to increase shelf life since the 1950s.

Far more recently, the FDA has cited research, including a conclusion by the independent Institute of Medicine, that there is no safe level of consumption of artificially made trans fatty acids. According to the FDA, taking them out of the marketplace has the potential to prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths a year.

Eschewing the (Trans) Fat

Fat often carries a bad reputation (sometimes, rightly so). Yet, it is essential for many bodily processes.

The primary fuel source in the body is a molecule known as a triglyceride. As the name suggests, this molecule is a glycerol connected to three fatty acids. After an enzyme known as hormone-sensitive lipase breaks the glycerol molecule apart from the fatty acids, both the glycerol and the fatty acids can be used for fuel.

Some fatty acids have carbon atoms with a single bond to each other as well as to two hydrogen bonds. This is known as a “saturated” bond. If there is a double bond between the carbon atoms, then there is no space for hydrogen atoms to attach and this is known as an “unsaturated” bond. Furthermore, such a double carbon-carbon bond can be classified as either trans (across) or cis (bent). In nature, fatty acids tend to have cis rather than trans unsaturations (notable exceptions include some meat and dairy products, a fairly isolated occurrence of natural trans fats).

Trans fats are more commonly an artificial contaminant introduced during the process of partial hydrogenation, a process developed in the early 20th century. Saturated fats come primarily from animal sources and exist in a semi-solid state at room temperature. Unsaturated fats sometimes exhibit an unsaturated bond and are an “oil”, or liquid, at room temperature. The term “omega” refers to this type of unsaturated bond. Cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel are high in Omega 3 fatty acids. These fats are believed to be beneficial and may lower blood cholesterol. Saturated fats are not, however, and can raise “bad” cholesterol. Unsaturated though it is, trans fat has also been associated with inflammation, diabetes and some types of cancer.

A Sea Change from Across the Pond

The FDA’s direction didn’t come completely out of the blue: In 2003, Denmark became the first nation to introduce laws to regulate the sale of foods containing trans fats after a growing body of research suggested that the stuff could do more harm than good. Three years later, the FDA started requiring trans fats to be labeled on food products that contained them.3 And many states and localities have since banned artificial trans fats from restaurants. Yet, consumers have continued to buy such products, albeit with an increased ability to find alternatives. 

Because they are so widespread, the FDA has not yet unveiled a suggested timeline for artificial trans fats to be phased out. But the administration has cited changes by food manufacturers and marketers that have voluntarily begun replacing trans fats with more acceptable substitutes as evidence that it can be done without imposing an undue disruption on markets. Time will tell.

References

1. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm372915.htm

2. The National Federation of Professional Trainers. Sports Nutrition Manual. 2nd Ed. Lafayette, IN: NFPT, 2006.

3. https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2003/07/11/03-17525/food-labeling-trans

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These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.