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A Final Farewell to Artificial Trans Fat

Partially Hydrogenated Oil Increasingly Hard to Find as Companies Face Monday Deadline to Eliminate It

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Once ubiquitous in microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, biscuits, margarines, frostings, and other foods, artificial trans fat is now hard to find as Monday’s deadline approaches.

The food industry has until Monday to stop producing foods that contain artificial trans fat—a deadline that comes just over 14 years after the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to revoke partially hydrogenated oil’s regulatory status as safe for use in foods. As a result, the heart-disease-promoting factory-made fat, once ubiquitous in restaurant deep fryers and in pastries, pie crusts, microwave popcorns, margarines and shortenings, and thousands of other packaged foods, is virtually gone from the food supply, according to the nonprofit nutrition and food safety watchdog group.

“The elimination of artificial trans fat from the food supply represents a historic and long-fought victory for public health,” said CSPI senior scientist and former executive director Michael F. Jacobson, who led CSPI’s efforts to get artificial trans fat out of foods. “Ridding the food supply of partially hydrogenated oils will save tens of thousands of lives each year.”

Partially hydrogenated oils were commercially introduced in the early 1900s. The technique by which liquid vegetable oil could be made solid or semi-solid at room temperature through partial hydrogenation won its inventors a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1912. In the early 1990s, evidence began to mount that partially hydrogenated oils were powerful promoters of heart disease. Trans fat elevates LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol that promotes heart disease), while lowering HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol that protects against heart disease). In 1993, Dr. Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published the first large study on trans fat and the risk of coronary heart disease. It showed a striking increase in risk with higher intake.

“At the time of peak usage, industrially produced trans fats in packaged and restaurant foods were contributing to about 50,000 early deaths annually,” said Dr. Willett. “Now that partially hydrogenated oils are virtually gone, it’s remarkable that nobody really misses them—not consumers, and for the most part, not even the food industry. But the entire food supply is safer as a result.”

“The elimination of artificial trans fat from the food supply represents a historic and long-fought victory for public health,” said CSPI senior scientist and former executive director Michael F. Jacobson, who led CSPI’s efforts to get artificial trans fat out of foods. “Ridding the food supply of partially hydrogenated oils will save tens of thousands of lives each year.”

The elimination of artificial trans fat caps a 25-year sustained public health campaign that began in 1993, when CSPI asked the FDA to label trans fat. (Trans fat labeling went into effect in 2006.) The effort also included litigation and city, county, and state-level curbs on the use of partially hydrogenated oils in restaurants. CSPI shined the spotlight on companies like McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, and Long John Silver’s until each chain eventually stopped using partially hydrogenated oils in favor of healthier fats. In 2013, CSPI named Long John Silver’s Big Catch the Worst Restaurant Meal in America, after lab tests found that the meal had 33 grams of trans fat—about two weeks’ worth.

In 2013, in response to CSPI’s 2004 petition, the FDA issued a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils were no longer Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS, for use in food. The agency finalized that determination in 2015, giving food manufacturers and restaurants three years to eliminate artificial trans fat.

The Food and Drug Administration further sealed the fate of partially hydrogenated oils when it recently denied a petition filed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association asking for approval to keep using the oils in certain applications. (The agency will require industry to phase out even the trace amounts used in those products by 2021.) In May, the World Health Organization launched a sweeping plan to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils throughout the world by 2023.

In 2006, a typical three-piece Extra Crispy combo meal from KFC—a drumstick, two thighs, potato wedges, and a biscuit—contained a staggering 15 grams of artificial trans fat. That’s more than a person should consume in a week. Today, the same meal at KFC has zero grams of trans fat. In 2002, a serving of Little Debbie Zebra Cakes had seven grams of trans fat. Today, it has zero grams.

“The food industry once used about eight billion pounds of partially hydrogenated oil annually,” Jacobson said. “Replacing that with healthier oils was an enormous undertaking. Manufacturers and restaurants, oil producers, seed developers, and farmers all deserve great credit for making the transition.”

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Contact Info: 

Jeff Cronin, CSPI: 202-777-8370 or jcronin[at]cspinet.org; Todd Datz, HSPH: 617-432-8413 or tdatz[at]hsph.harvard.edu