Considering the recent news that the FDA has finally decided to make some moves with regard to partially hydrogenated oils (also known as trans-fats), I thought it’d be a great time to talk about what they are in your food, what they’ve historically been linked to in terms of health and wellness, and how to help you create your own exit strategy when it comes to trans-fats in your foods.
It’s really easy to skim news articles and tweets, and come to the conclusion that something major-league is happening, here. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case, here. And, in typical Friday form, I’ve got a few reasons why:
1) Contrary to popularly-tweeted belief, what the FDA is doing is in no way, shape or form, anywhere even remotely near banning trans-fats from processed food. Why? Because the FDA can’t do that.
The FDA doesn’t have the legal authority to force a food manufacturer to ban anything from their product. That’s not what the FDA is there for, and it’s not what the FDA does. Remember – the FDA is an arm of the USDA, the body that represents the agriculture and food manufacturing industries interests.
What the FDA is doing, friends, is actually opting to remove something known as “GRAS” status, an acronym that stands for “generally recognized as safe.” From the FDA’s press release, “Part of the FDA’s responsibility to the public is to ensure that food in the American food supply is safe. Therefore, due to the risks associated with consuming [partially hydrogenated oils], FDA has issued a Federal Register notice with its preliminary determination that [partially hydrogenated oils] are no longer “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, for short. If this preliminary determination is finalized, then [partially hydrogenated oils] would become food additives subject to premarket approval by FDA. Foods containing unapproved food additives are considered adulterated under U.S. law, meaning they cannot legally be sold.”
But Erika, if ‘foods containing unapproved additives are considered adulterated under US law and therefore cannot be legally sold,’ how is that different from being banned?
See? I knew you were gonna ask that. It’s different for a number of reasons:
a) Foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils can still petition for the right to be sold, and actually be granted that right on a case-by-case – or, as it were, product-by-product basis. And, considering the flow of employees back and forth between the FDA and the food industry, you can see where this is possibly going already.
b) Regulation of ingredients in processed food products is, by and large, a joke. From Pandora’s Lunchbox:
Grasping how the FDA could allow companies simply to wave a magic wand and give their own ingredients a green light requires going back to that 1958 food-additive law. In passing it, Congress expected that all new substances would go through a rigorous FDA review process before being launched into the supermarket. Congress wasn’t sure how many new food additives there would be, but it naively figured the total might reach a thousand or so. As a sort of side rule, the law established another program known as the GRAS list (Generally Recognized as Safe) for substances that everyone and their dog knew to be safe— things like spices, salt, vinegar, and yeast. It was an escape hatch for the relatively small number of commonsense things that didn’t need an arduous approval process. And thanks to the compromise-ridden, sausage-making nature of government legislation, it was made voluntary. Companies didn’t have to let the FDA know about their GRAS ingredients if they chose not to, though Congress expected most of them would anyway.
Ingredient companies quickly realized that getting something declared GRAS by the FDA was infinitely easier than vying for approval through what was formally and confusingly called “the food additive process.” Although it was never intended to, the torrent of new ingredients gradually shifted toward GRAS.
Then in 1997, a change in the rules made getting something on the GRAS list even easier, turning the stringent food-additive process into a vestigial organ of the regulatory system. The FDA said that instead of GRAS petitions— a filing process where agency scientists had to look at safety data and make a decision— there were now GRAS notifications, a system by which a company would assess the safety of its own ingredients, often by assembling a panel of experts. The company would then notify the FDA of its decision, unless, of course, it decided not to. The system, remember, is still voluntary. The GRAS process became so attractive to ingredient companies that everyone pretty much stopped using the petition process Congress had set up. Since 2000, there have been formal FDA “food additive petitions” for only four new substances.
In deciding their own fate, companies are supposed to adhere to guidelines laid out in what’s known as the FDA’s Redbook, but there are no legal ramifications for not following these nonbinding guidelines. What’s more, the standards for what sorts of qualifications an “expert” must have were never spelled out beyond the expectation that it should be someone “qualified by scientific training and experience to evaluate [an ingredient’s] safety.”
Would you like to also talk about how foods accidentally find their way inside of products all the time? Never fear – Warner’s got you covered on that front, too:
Around our house, my experiments were regarded as little more than mildly amusing, sort of weird, and definitely gross. My food collection was a funny little hobby. Until the guacamole incident. On a Fourth of July trip out of town in 2011, my husband had returned from the grocery store with a tub of “fresh guacamole.” “They made an announcement over the loudspeaker that they had just made it over at the deli, so I went and got some,” he said proudly. The container had a haphazardly applied sticker on it, indicating that it very well could have been “made fresh” by one of the store’s white-coated deli workers. But there was something unusual about the ingredients: Hass avocados, salt, ascorbic acid, citric acid, xanthan gum, amigum, text-instant, tomatoes, yellow onion, jalapeño, cilantro. I was knee-deep in research on food additives, but I’d never heard of amigum or text-instant. I went to the store and bought another tub, tucking it into our fridge at home and figuring I’d look into those strange ingredients later. Mostly I forgot about it. Then, nine months later, my mom, who lives with us in Boulder, Colorado, announced she’d tried some of the guacamole. We’d just had a birthday party for one of our boys, and I’d bought some dips from Whole Foods. I hoped that was what she was referring to, but I was pretty sure all of it was gone. My mom had tried the other guacamole, the Fourth of July stuff, of course. “It was a little spicy,” she declared.
Several weeks after that April evening when my mom accidentally ate the nine-month-old guacamole, I decided to try and track down the origins of those mysterious ingredients— the “text-instant” and “amigum.” She hadn’t been harmed by them, but I wanted to get to the bottom of why a seemingly simple food like guacamole needed such things. I contacted a food scientist who’s held a wide range of jobs in the industry and has worked with all kinds of ingredients. He, too, had never heard of “text-instant” or “amigum.” It piqued his interest, and before I had a chance to do it, he contacted Kroger, the grocery chain where my husband bought what had become a very interesting tub of guacamole.
Within a day, he’d gotten an e-mail response from Molly McBride, a Kroger corporate dietitian, who had inquired of the company’s food scientists. She explained that “text-instant” was a mislabeled ingredient. Instead, it was modified starch. Labels, she said, would be corrected to read “food starch modified.” The food scientist took this to mean that it was probably a corn or tapioca product from Ingredion (formerly National Starch) that, as the company puts it, gives products “pulpy textural characteristics.” The product’s called Instant Textaid.
McBride made no reference to “amigum” in her e-mail, only to indicate that it, too, would no longer appear on the ingredient label. The food scientist found this lack of explanation curious. The only amigum he knew of was something used in cosmetics as a gelling agent, and for which the safety data sheets read: “If ingested, obtain medical attention.” He had a disquieting theory: “I think their vendor maybe took a basic avocado facial mask formula and turned it into a dip without realizing that one of the ingredients was not approved for food use.”
So there you have it: My mom, forever wary of “gooped-up” products, may have unintentionally consumed facial mask.
c) Words mean things – wording your rejection of a product as merely removal of its “safe” status that was originally flimsy in the first place, as opposed to combining forced with the proper governmental channels to outright ban the stuff sends a message. To manufacturers, not the public – it’s telling them to find your loopholes and govern yourselves accordingly. That’s not “conspiracy theory.” It’s business, plain and simple.
2) What is a trans fat, anyway? Trans-fats – sold in giant vats for $2-$3 to the public in terms like “shortening” and under names like “crisco” – is another word for ‘partially hydrogenated oils.” You’ll oftentimes find it under your ingredients lists as “partially hydrogenated [blank] oil,” such as “partially hydrogenated soybean oil” or “partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil.”
Think about what fats are – molecules of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen that combine and create the fatty acids that give our foods soft, creamy texture. The more hydrogen you add to a fat – meaning, the more saturated it is – the more solid that fat will be at room temperature. The most obvious example of this is coconut oil – a fat that is completely solid at room temperature, and has to have heat applied for it to give in any way. This lends itself to why coconut oil was, for so long, deemed “unhealthy” – if saturated fat is [erroneously] deemed unhealthy, and coconut oil is high in saturated fats, then coconut oil must be the problem!!!111ONE
In order for processed foods to have long-term shelf stability and simultaneously maintain its proper texture and “OMG SO GOOD CAN’T STOP EATING IT”ness, food manufacturers needed a fat that could both avoid going rancid, could be shelf stable, and could stay solid until it needed to turn into a liquid. Bonus points if it is, in some way, cheaper than using pure oil in the first place.
Therefore, if you add even MOAR hydrogen to your regular fats, you should be good… right?
3) What makes trans-fats so bad? From Organic Authority:
To make partially hydrogenated oils (those that are partially solidified), hydrogen atoms are added to liquid fats like soybean oil, rendering a fat that’s partially solidified, partially filled with hydrogen atoms, and partially kinked. That last point is very important; it’s what makes partially hydrogenated oil so dangerous.
These kinked, partially hydrogenated oils literally build up inside the body, sticking to each other, forming longer, unbranched chains that continue to grow and kink, linking up sticky end to sticky end, and they eventually grow so large inside the body that microscopes can physically spot them inside of us. They bioaccumulate inside our bodies, the same way mercury and heavy metals bioaccumulate inside a tuna in the ocean. And all the while, these fats increase our LDL cholesterol while lowering our HDL, the healthy kind. It’s a recipe for disaster. [source]
4) There is still trans-fats in your food. Yes, even the food with “no trans fats!!!!!111ONE” brandished across the front label. If you think you’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding the trans fats in processed foods simply because you buy up all the stuff that says “0 grams trans fat!” on the front, I have a sad story to tell you.
The FDA allows companies with less than 0.51 grams of trans fats per serving to claim that they have “0 grams trans fats!!!!!1ONE” on the label. The problem with this is two-fold:
a) most people who consume processed foods are arguably going to consume more than one serving, which means that they’ll likely consume more than that 0.50g per sitting; and
b) serving sizes are completely made up. Remember the Marie Callendar pot pies that said the entire pie was actually serving sizes for two, not one, and each serving size was over 1,000 calories? That’s not accidental – these companies have millions of dollars on the line for every product. Nothing is accidental – it’s all business. Companies know that people look at ingredient labels, but are you really inspecting it? Are you aware of how a brand defines a “serving size?” There’s no regulation for determining what a serving size is – nor should there be, for that matter – but that means that there’s nothing stopping a company from changing the serving size to something juuuust small enough so that they can benefit from the “less than .51 grams” privilege.
5) You can, however, escape exposure to trans fats. There’s lots of talk about “man-made trans fats” in comparison to naturally occurring ones but, to me, this is noise. The public isn’t properly armed with enough information to be able to distinguish between the two, and it feels like a way to derail the conversation especially when people are shouting – loudly – about the perils of processed food and industry wants to squash that. There’s also a lot of talk about consuming everything in moderation, but the fact of the matter is that consuming everything in moderation could result in you inadvertently consuming far more trans fats than is considered even remotely safe, and leave you in a bad way. If, in fact, trans fats contribute to heart disease and other dangerous maladies, then its no wonder why heart health is so difficult to achieve. There’s also talk of the difference between “partially hydrogenated” and “fully hydrogenated” oils, but I’m still researching that. I’ll say this – when in doubt, toss it out.
The only way to lessen your own exposure to trans fats is to stop buying products that make mention of hydrogenation (“hydrogenated”), and start making the transition towards cooking your meals at home. Plan ahead, commit to prep work, and cook those favorite meals from scratch. Like I always say, your body will thank you for it!