The Bottom Line: Foods with Trans Fat are Lingering

Foods with trans fat are finally on the way out, but the food industry is working to keep this deadly ingredient in foods.


Hooray! On June 17th, the Food and Drug Administration ended a battle that started a quarter century ago. The FDA banned partially hydrogenated oil, the source of artificial trans fat. The food industry will ask the FDA to allow specific amounts in certain foods, but I hope the FDA permits only levels that won’t harm consumers.

Food with trans fat entered our food supply more than a century ago, when chemists found that reacting liquid oils with hydrogen turned them into more-solid fats. That led to shortenings like Crisco (which replaced lard, butter, and beef tallow) and stick margarines. After World War II, the floodgates opened. Partially hydrogenated oils were cheap and shelf stable, and companies began to use them in thousands of foods.

The first inklings of a problem came in the 1970s when Fred Kummerow, a University of Illinois researcher, found that partially hydrogenated oil clogged the arteries of pigs. But the big breakthrough came in 1990, when Dutch researchers Ronald Mensink and Martijn Katan found clear evidence that trans fat raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lowers HDL (“good”) cholesterol in humans.

Soon after, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (publisher of Nutrition Action) jumped into the fray. In 1993 and 1994, it urged the FDA to require the new Nutrition Facts labels to make disclosures on foods with trans fat.

But the wheels of regulation grind very slowly. It wasn’t until 1999 that the FDA proposed adding trans fat to the Nutrition Facts label. The FDA issued a final rule in 2003 and gave companies until 2006 to put trans on labels.

How bad are foods with trans fat?

Meanwhile, Harvard epidemiologists estimated that foods with trans fat were causing upwards of 50,000 deaths annually, and Denmark became the first country to ban all-but-trivial levels of artificial trans fat in foods. In 2004, CSPI called on the FDA to do the same.

Many companies—Frito-Lay was one of the first—began switching to healthier oils. Lawsuits also played a role. In 2003, California lawyer Steve Joseph sued McDonald’s and Kraft. In 2006, CSPI sued KFC and Burger King for not disclosing their use of partially hydrogenated oils.

Then New York City became the first locale to ban the nasty oils from restaurant and bakery foods.

All that pressure forced the food industry to make a big oil change. In the early 2000s, companies used about eight billion pounds of partially hydrogenated oils annually. Now it’s down to one or two billion.

The FDA has given companies three years to get rid of partially hydrogenated oils, so you’ll have to keep reading labels. (Foods with trans fat include some cake frostings, microwave popcorns, pies, and stick margarines; they have at least 1 gram of trans, which is half a day’s limit. Most tub margarines have none or, like Crisco, less than half a gram per serving, which shows up as “0 grams trans” on the label.)

Still, a historic victory has been achieved —largely eliminating one of the most harmful substances in the U.S. food supply.

Except for one thing

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the food industry is fighting to continue making foods with trans fat. A food additive petition filed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association is asking the Food and Drug Administration for formal approval to use small, sometimes even negligible amounts of partially hydrogenated oil in some foods, such as pancake mixes.

If the petition were granted, it would not result in foods that contain several grams of artificial trans fat per serving. But, if all foods contained as much trans fat as the petition requests, people would be consuming about as much artificial trans fat as they are now. An executive summary of the food industry’s petition was first obtained by Politico.

“Americans are already getting unavoidable trans fat from naturally occurring sources in the diet,” said Center for Science in the Public Interest president Michael F. Jacobson. “There’s little, if any, room left for the industrially produced kind from partially hydrogenated oils. But companies apparently want to market foods with a quarter or half a gram of trans fat in a serving. For some people, such as consumers of microwave popcorn and Cinnabons, the amounts could add up to a significant health risk. Safer substitutes for partially hydrogenated oil have been deployed for every kind of food, so there’s really no excuse to keep using it.”