Partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fats, have been declared unsafe for human consumption by the FDA, and will be phased out of our food supply by 2018. This is both good news, and sobering news.
First the good news: trans fat has been shown to be very hazardous to our health, so this ban is estimated to save thousands of lives each year. The sobering news is twofold: First of all, the history behind this ban reinforces the fact that we cannot trust the FDA or USDA to make scientifically-sound nutrition recommendations that will protect our health. Second of all, the replacements that the food industry has developed to replace partially hydrogenated oil have their own set of problems. These problems include human rights and environmental issues, as well as health issues– that may actually turn out to be just as serious as those from trans fats. There is a lot going on with this ban, so let’s dig a little deeper so that we can be better prepared to make informed decisions at the grocery store.
Let’s start with a quick overview of what partially hydrogenated oil (PHO) and trans fats are. PHO begins its life as a liquid oil (eg. soybean oil) that is then transformed into a solid fat through an industrial chemical reaction. In this reaction, hydrogen atoms are forcibly attached to the fat molecules with the help of high pressure, high temperatures, and chemical catalysts. Some of the resulting fat molecules in the partially hydrogenated oil have a structure that is called trans— these are the trans fats.* PHO is a desirable ingredient in processed foods because it is shelf-stable, it is cheap, and the hydrogenation level can be controlled to yield the perfect texture in the final product.
The ban on partially hydrogenated oil has been a long time coming. In fact, scientist were questioning its safety as early as the 1950s. Over the decades, evidence of its danger has accumulated, and also been suppressed and ignored. In 1968, the American Heart Association attempted to publicize the potential danger of trans fats, only to be stopped by the influence of P&G, the maker of Crisco, the original partially hydrogenated product. In the late 1970s, the USDA interfered with the publication of research that was critical of trans fats. In 1990, a randomized, controlled trial provided incredibly strong new evidence that trans fats increase heart disease, yet the 1992 USDA nutrition guidelines did not even mention trans fats, much less warn against them (7).
In spite of all of the evidence, it wasn’t until 2006 that the FDA began to require companies to list amounts of trans fats on the nutrition facts label. Then it took almost another decade, until 2015, for the FDA to say that PHO is not actually a safe ingredient in our food. It will now be another three years before this ban is fully in place, in 2018.
What is the meaning of this long history? It means that generations of people have been mortally harmed by this product, simply so the food industry could make a fortune selling us cheap, shelf-stable processed foods. The FDA has stated that tens of thousands of lives will be saved each year from this ban. That’s great, but what they don’t emphasize is that as a conservative estimate, hundreds of thousands have already been needlessly killed.
The PHO ban won’t be fully in place for another three years, so here are a few things to know to make informed decisions until then:
Since labeling requirements changed in 2006, companies have reduced or even eliminated PHO from many of their products, so that they could claim to have “zero grams” on their packaging. But, there is some very important fine print: foods can contain up to half a gram of trans fat per serving, and still claim to have “zero grams”. Depending on serving sizes, it can be very easy to consume many servings, and those partial grams of trans fat can quickly add up.
Check out these labels, for Pop Secret microwave popcorn and for Betty Crocker whipped frosting:
The frosting label says there are zero grams of trans fat, yet partially hydrogenated oil is on the ingredient list, so there are trans fats present. All we know is that there is less than half a gram of trans fat per serving. The serving size is 2 tablespoons, so a couple of cupcakes later, we may have unknowingly consumed multiple grams of trans fat. (Keep in mind that the FDA has now said that there is no safe level of PHO in foods.)
The servings size of the popcorn is 1/3 of the bag, but we’re more likely to just eat the whole bag than to save 2/3 of it for another day. This popcorn has a whopping 5 g of trans fat per serving! The American Heart Association has recommended that trans fats make up less than 1 percent of daily calories. For a standard 2,000 calorie intake, eating one bag of this popcorn would mean that almost eight percent of calories would come from trans fats. I didn’t find any other product that had nearly this much trans fat per serving, so if there’s only one PHO-containing food you avoid, make it Pop Secret microwave popcorn.**
Some other common foods that still contain partially hydrogenated oil, as of July 2015:
Check labels to make decisions for yourself. As can be seen, products containing hydrogenated oils are processed foods that tend to not be great for our health, no matter if they have trans fats in them, or not.
Now on to the other reason to be skeptical of the belated ban: the food industry had to develop something to replace PHOs, and as it turns out, the replacements may not be any better than the original. Not only are there environmental and human rights concerns with the newly popular palm oil, but there is also a new oil processing method, interesterification, that brings up serious health concerns. Ironically enough, it may turn out to be just as harmful as partial hydrogenation.
Palm oil is becoming ubiquitous in all of the products that were once made with partially hydrogenated oils. Like PHO, palm oil is solid at room temperature and shelf-stable. In the last couple of decades, production of palm oil has quadrupled, and it continues to skyrocket. It is already found in the majority of packaged/processed food products. It has overtaken soybean oil as the most consumed vegetable oil, largely due to the shift away from partially hydrogenated oils (8).
- Most palm oil currently originates from Malaysia and Indonesia, where it is a primary cause of rainforest deforestation. The deforestation and destruction of peatlands for palm plantations has become a primary contributor to climate change. The destruction of rainforest habitat is also greatly harming critically endangered species such as orangutans and the Sumatran tiger, which only live in these areas (8).
- There are tens of millions of people who are dependent on the rainforest for their livelihoods. There are hundreds of languages and incredible cultural diversity in the Indonesian forests, and these indigenous people are having land taken out from under them, without their consent. National and multinational companies are exploiting the resources of the forests, all with the support of international funding, World Bank policies, and IMF policies (2).
- One of the reasons that palm oil is inexpensive enough for our snack foods is that it is grown in countries where labor and production costs are cheap. In addition, forced and child labor are prevalent on palm oil plantations. In 2012, the US Department of Labor put palm plantations on the list of the most egregious perpetrators of forced and child labor. There has been a lot in the news recently about human trafficking in southeast Asia. Migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar are commonly brought into Malaysia by human traffickers, under conditions of severe exploitation. Palm plantations are one of the primary places they end up (12).
What can be done about these concerns? The Rainforest Action Network urges consumers to help put pressure on the major multinational food companies that are the biggest palm oil consumers (8). It can be daunting to face such big problems, but you can gain some empowerment by choosing to support your local food systems and local farmers whenever possible, while moving away from processed, questionably produced products made by multinational corporations. Not only will this support your local economy and avoid the problems discussed above, but by focusing on fresher, less processed foods you will also be doing your health a lot of good.
Speaking of which, as mentioned earlier, PHO replacements raise serious health concerns. Fresh, unprocessed palm oil is a natural food that is full of antioxidants, contains important vitamins, and is associated with improved cholesterol status (15). However, palm oil is not added unadulterated into products, rather, it is refined and then put through a process called “interesterification”.
Interesterification is a process by which a solid fat and a liquid oil are combined to form a semi-soft fat. Like the hydrogenation process, this is an industrial chemical reaction, which results in fats that are not found in nature (13). The solid fat in interesterified oil is typically either palm oil or fully hydrogenated oil. (Fully hydrogenated oil is a solid fat made in the same way as partially hydrogenated oil.) The liquid oil that is used can be soybean oil, cottonseed oil, or another vegetable oil.
The effects of interesterified oil have not yet been researched as much as PHO, but the research that has been done is alarming:
- A 2007 study found that both interesterified oil (IE) and partially hydrogenated soybean oil worsened cholesterol levels and worsened blood sugar levels, as compared to unaltered palm oil (6).
- A 2014 study found that there is a delay in absorption after eating IE oil as compared to unaltered palm oil, showing that it has a strong effect on lipid metabolism, which has as yet unknown implications (4).
- A 2009 study found that IE fats had a harmful effect on blood triglycerides in obese subjects, but not non-obese subjects (9).
- A review article published in 2010 points out that studies have consistently shown harmful effects from IE fat on blood glucose, insulin, immune function, liver enzymes, and lipoprotein metabolism. The researchers call for “more research to determine the appropriateness of interesterifed fat consumption… before it becomes insidiously embedded in the food supply similar to [trans fatty acids]” (5). Unfortunately, this has not occurred; interesterified fats have silently infiltrated our food supply, and we are now guinea pigs in an epidemiological study to be.
The tricky thing about interesterified oil is that it does not need to be labeled as such on food packages. Here are some ingredients that suggest a food product contains interesterified oil (13):
- Palm oil or palm kernel oil
- Fully hydrogenated oil
- Palm oil -or- fully hydrogenated oil, and another oil (such as soybean oil), listed together
- Monoglycerides, diglycerides
What is the takeaway from all of this information? In brief:
- The government can’t be trusted as a resource for nutrition guidance.
- Read labels to help make decisions at the grocery store.
- Support local farmers over multinational food corporations.
- Choosing fresh, unprocessed foods over processed foods is always a healthy choice.
* There are also trans fats that are naturally occurring in products such as dairy. These are not associated with adverse health affects, however (3).
** Pop Secret does have a “Light Butter” version that is made with palm oil, not PHO.
- American Heart Association, “Know Your Fats,” Apr 29, 2015, http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/PreventionTreatmentofHighCholesterol/Know-Your-Fats_UCM_305628_Article.jsp
- Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Cruel Oil, How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest, and Wildlife,” 2005, http://www.cspinet.org/palm/PalmOilReport.pdf
- Gayet-Boyer, C; et al, “Is there a linear relationship between the dose of ruminant trans-fatty acids and cardiovascular risk markers in healthy subjects: results from a systematic review and meta-regression of randomised clinical trials,” Br J Nutr Dec 28;112(12):1914-22. (2014) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25345440
- Hall, WL, et al, “An interesterified palm olein test meal decreases early-phase postprandial lipidemia compared to palm olein: a randomized controlled trial,” Lipids Sep;49(9):895-904 (2014) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25103522
- Hayes, KC; Pronczuk, A, “Replacing trans fat: the argument for palm oil with a cautionary note on interesterification,” J Am Coll Nutr Jun;29(3 Suppl) (2010): 253S-284S. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20823487
- Kalyana Sundram et al, “Stearic acid rich interesterified fat and trans rich fat raise HDL/LDLand plasma glucose relative to palm olein in humans,” Nutrition and Metabolism 4:3, (2007), http://www.nutritionandmetabolism.com/content/4/1/3/abstract
- Minger, Denise, Death by Food Pyramid (Primal Blueprint Publishing, 2013) pg. 153-159
- Rainforest Action Network, “Conflict Palm Oil,” Sep 12, 2013, http://www.ran.org/palm_oil
- Robinson, DM, et al, “Influence of interesterification of a stearic-acid rich spreadable fat on acute metabolic risk factors,” Lipids Jan;44(1):17-2 (2009) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18982377
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “FDA Cuts Trans Fats in Processed Foods,” Jun 15, 2015, http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm372915.htm
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “FDA Takes Step to Further Cut Trans Fats in Processed Foods,” Nov 7, 2015, http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm373939.htm
- Wall Street Journal, “Palm Oil Migrant Workers Tell of Abuses on Malaysian Plantations,” Jul 26, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/palm-oil-migrant-workers-tell-of-abuses-on-malaysian-plantations-1437933321
- Wood, Shelley, “New fat may pose similar risk to trans,” Medscape Cardiology. Jan 19, 2007, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/789003?t=1
- World Wildlife Fund, “Sumatran Orangatan Photos,” https://www.worldwildlife.org/media?species_id=sumatran-orangutan
- Cuesta, C, “Lipoprotein profiles and serum peroxide levels of aged women consuming palmolein or oleic-rich sunflower oil diets,” Eur J Clin Nutr Sep;52(9):675-83 (1998) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9756125