Is transitioning away from trans fats in the best interest of public health?

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FDAlogo300x225_0When it comes to which foods are healthy and which foods are not, everyone has an opinion and whether you re right or wrong there s probably science to back you up. This makes it difficult for you, the consumer, to make the right choices.

One thing that causes a lot of confusion are fats and there are a lot of public misconceptions about them. However, when you consider your body NEEDS fats for things like cell membranes and hormones, the characterization of fats as a definitively negative food idea becomes fuzzy. This is why it s important, instead of vilifying fats as a group, to discuss them as different entities.

This is what the FDA is doing this week to trans fats by calling for their elimination from foods by 2018, although some food producers can apply for exemption. The agency claims that the decision will annually prevent 20,000 heart attacks and prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease. They also project it will save the nation 130 billion in health care costs over the next 20 years, compared to the 6 billion industry anticipates compliance will cost.

Trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils, are not commonly produced in nature, in general they are synthesized in a lab, so almost any food that contains some has had the trans fat added. As we have pointed out before, just because something is synthetic and/or added to your food doesn t make it inherently bad.

But when you investigate trans fats, the data point towards several negative health consequences. Trans fats have been shown to raise LDLs (the bad cholesterol) and having elevated LDLs is associated with many negative physiologic effects. Also, their structure, compared to other fats, allows trans fats to bundle tightly together which makes them harder for your body to metabolize into energy, or to be removed from your body. Furthermore, they appear to interfere with liver enzymes, and lipases (enzymes that break down fats) are better suited for breaking down other, non-trans fats.

While the FDA eliminating trans fats might sound like a huge win for public health, there s reason for skepticism. In a response to public and scientific outcry about trans fats, their use is already down in America by 86 percent and American food manufacturers and retailers such as General Mills, Yum Foods, and Walmart announced measures to reduce and eliminate trans fats years ago. Food science is also constantly evolving as it has done recently with saturated fats.

ACSH s Nicholas Staropoli adds: Trans fats seem to contribute to to arterial atherosclerosis, among other things, and their elimination will lead to a healthier America. These two reasons alone make this the right decision. However, no one should heap too much praise on the FDA for this decision as manufacturers had begun self-regulating on trans fats over a decade ago. In reality its more FDA window-dressing than a major public health boon."