Trans Fats Are Going Extinct

by Jenny Hollander

Ah, trans fats — those pesky oils you always knew were bad for you, but showed up in all of your favorite foods (cookies! microwave popcorn! cake frosting!) anyway. Short of frying your own fries, which I haven't tried but wouldn't recommend, it's been difficult to know exactly how to avoid them. Fortunately, the FDA announced Thursday trans fats are going extinct in the United States, meaning all food producers in the entire country have three years to cut trans fats out entirely. It's a big freaking deal, and the FDA's long-expected cracking down on trans fats confirms that the agency recognizes exactly how bad these products have been — and, for the next 36 months, could continue to be — for your heart health. So how can you avoid trans fats before food agencies do the job for you?

Well, first, let's go over exactly what trans fats do to your body. The unsaturated fats, which are used in fast food, snack food, baked goods, and margarine, have been tied repeatedly to heart disease — as the The Washington Post puts it, they're frankly "artery-clogging." Eating trans fats has also been linked in early studies to Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, depression, and a handful of other problems — infertility and cancer, for example, have also been tentatively tied to consumption of trans fats — and even the FDA has admitted that all evidence points to trans fats being so bad, they're certainly something we shouldn't be eating regularly.

In its official statement, the FDA said:

Based on a thorough review of the scientific evidence, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration today finalized its determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS for use in human food. Food manufacturers will have three years to remove PHOs from products.

Got that? Not "generally recognized as safe." Sheesh. Unfortunately, for the next 36 months, there's a very real chance that some of your all-time favorite foods will not be generally recognized as safe. (I know, I know. I, too, thought that cake frosting would never betray me.) So how can you avoid these bad boys until they're taken out of your food?

Check Those Ingredients

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This is the easiest way to keep your trans fat intake to a minimum, albeit a long-winded one. As per the FDA's 2006 policy, trans fats have to show up on every list of ingredients in food manufacturers' products.

... But Don't Take Them For Gospel

Here's a sneaky clause in that policy: If your product has 0.5g or less of trans fat, the company is legally allowed to list that as 0g. Writes the FDA in its Tuesday statement:

Currently, foods are allowed to be labeled as having “0” grams trans fat if they contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, including PHOs, the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods.

So don't assume that just because the package says 0g, this truly means, well, zero grams. But what kind of packages should you be looking at specifically?

Look Out For What Trans Fats Are Most Often Found In

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A whole lot of snack food: Some kinds of margarine, crackers and cookies, other baked goods, microwave popcorn, coffee creamers, frostings, some kinds of frozen food. According to the Mayo Clinic, restaurants sometimes fry their food in trans fats, although that's illegal in some places, like New York City.

Keep The Good News In Mind

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The fact that trans fats are bad for you isn't news. Many companies have already phrased out trans fats, and more will zap them immediately in light of the FDA's announcement, the agency notes.

Many companies have already been working to remove PHOs from processed foods and the FDA anticipates that many may eliminate them ahead of the three-year compliance date.

Is that last line more a threat? You decide.

Image: Mike DelGaudio, Flickr