FDA finally sees elephant in the room…and it’s a fat one

Just before Thanksgiving, the FDA announced plans to force the food industry to phase out the use of all trans fats. This type of artificial fat is a major cause of heart disease this country. And you find it in baked goods, French fries, and many other types of processed foods. The FDA estimates that eliminating trans fats completely from the American diet could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.

My long-time friend and colleague, Walt Willett, M.D., Ph.D. is the Chair of Nutrition at Harvard. He told Medscape Medical News, “The FDA decision is very welcome and strongly supported by massive scientific evidence that trans fats have many adverse effects on health.” He also said reducing trans fat, “will likely nudge down rates of diabetes, obesity and other conditions.”

Unfortunately, the agency didn’t yet set a timeline for the phase-out. And different foods may have different timelines, depending on how easy it is to find a substitute. But you can guarantee, like everything in the government, it will happen slowly. And it will take much more time than it should.

But this much-needed ban on trans fats has already been a long time coming…

We began making the case against trans fats at least 30 years ago. I remember working at the National Cancer Institute in the 1980s and talking a lot about the dietary causes of disease. I recommended looking first at artificial, unnatural substances. The human body doesn’t know how to metabolize these substances because they’re not present in nature.

In 2002, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that trans fats provide no health benefit and that there is no safe level of consumption. And more than five years ago, the American College of Cardiology began to advocate an outright ban of these artificial fats.

So the FDA is a little behind the times, to say the least.

The FDA also plans to look at the policy for labeling foods as “trans-fats free.” Currently, if a food product contains less than 0.5 g of trans fat per serving, food manufacturers can “round” it down to 0 on the food product label. This may be appropriate practice arithmetically, but it’s not correct nutritionally!

Of course, about 10 years ago Americans did begin eating less trans fat. Even without FDA intervention.

In fact, daily consumption of trans fats fell from 4.6 grams per person in 2003 to about 1 g per person in 2012. Improved food labeling probably helped achieve this result. In fact, beginning in 2008, food labels began to show trans fat content. And consumers became more aware of the trans fat content of their purchases. In addition, food manufacturers began to reduce the amounts of trans fats in their products.

Unfortunately, many food items still contain the bad stuff. So, until the FDA implements these sweeping measures, play it smart. Avoid these foods that commonly contain trans fats:

-Microwave popcorn
-Frozen pizzas
-Coffee creamers

Even without trans fats, these foods just aren’t healthy anyway. So try to stay away from them…whether or not the FDA measures go through.

Now, I know I often express concerns about nanny states jumping in to “help” us make “dietary choices.” But I see this development as one exception. And one that makes sense. Nobody should eat these fake, disease-causing “foods” anyway. So, in this one case, I am all for FDA regulation. Once in a while, we can take the good with the bad! And by getting trans fats off your table and out of your cabinets, you can focus more clearly on additional steps for a healthier diet.