A lot of people complained about the “food police” when trans fats were targeted by as a primary contributor to heart disease. Food manufacturers were required to list trans fats on food labels and some communities issued outright trans fat bans. The regulations are bearing fruit. A new study has found that the amount of trans fats coursing through American arteries has dropped dramatically in the past decade.
Trans fats, or trans fatty acids, are partially hydrogenated vegetable oils typically found in processed food. Studies have linked trans fats to increased risk of heart disease, sudden cardiac death, and high cholesterol. Trans fats resulted from turning cottonseed and soybean oil from a liquid to a solid well-suited for baking and frying. Believe it or not, back in the 1980’s health activists endorsed trans fats. Crisco, the most classic trans fat of them all, was considered a healthy alternative to lard.
However, by the mid-1990s, scientific studies turned up evidence that trans fats increased “bad” artery-clogging LDL cholesterol. The Centers for Disease Control determined that trans fats, unlike other fats, are not essential to human health. Health activists then began denouncing trans fats.
In 2006 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring food manufacturers to list trans fats on nutrition labels. Municipal health departments pushed restaurants to limit their use of trans fats and began to educate the public about health risks associated with the oils. The city of New York led the way in banning trans fats, first in restaurants and then in all foods sold within the city limits. Philadelphia, Baltimore, and California are among the jurisdictions banning trans fat from restaurant food.
Though not bound by the FDA regulations, some restaurant chains voluntarily eliminated or greatly reduced trans fats after the FDA requirement became law. Other restaurant chains, including KFC and Burger King, reduced or eliminated the use of trans fats after they were sued by the Centers for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI dropped its suit in 2006 after KFC switched to trans-fat-free cooking oil. Burger King stopped using oil containing man-made trans fats in 2008.
A CDC report on a study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found that the campaign against trans fats has produced significant results. CDC researchers randomly selected white respondents age 20 and up from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for the years 2000 and 2009. Their review of the data found that blood levels of trans-fatty acids in white American adults decreased by 58 percent from 2000 to 2009.
All four major trans-fatty acids decreased substantially in serum samples in that time frame:
Vaccenic acid levels fell 56 percent
Elaidic acid levels dropped 63 percent
Palmitelaidic acid levels declined 49 percent
Linoelaidic acid levels decreased 49 percent
Plus, LDL cholesterol level readings in the study declined alongside the decreases in serum trans-fatty acids, from an average 128 in 2000 to 119 in 2009.
Trans fats are on the decline, but they haven’t disappeared entirely yet. In its report on the study, the CDC said it’s still easy to come across trans fats in the supermarket. For example, Pop Secret Popcorn and Pillsbury’s Buttermilk Biscuits are loaded with the deadly oils. And you probably want to stay away from the Long John Silver’s seafood chain. Even when products say “zero trans fat” on the label, it isn’t entirely true, because FDA rules allow manufacturers to make that claim with foods containing up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.