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. Continue reading