On November 7, 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced an initial determination that trans fat and partially hydrogenated oils are no longer “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). What does all of this mean? Let’s take a step back.
Trans fat can occur in two forms: artificial or natural. Artificial trans fat is added to processed foods as partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which have been used since the 1950s to help improve the shelf-life, texture, and maintain the flavor of processed foods. Naturally-occurring trans fat can appear in dairy products and certain meats, but the FDA is concerned about the artificial trans fat containing partially hydrogenated oils. Until recently, the FDA has referred to partially hydrogenated oils as generally recognized as safe , meaning partially hydrogenated oils have been scientifically proven to be safe to eat. Current research has shown, however, that partially hydrogenated oils are not as safe as we have previously believed.
In 2006, the FDA began to require trans fat be included on nutrition facts labels. This ruling caused many food manufacturers to take trans fat out of their foods altogether. However, there is an unfortunate labeling loophole: labels can say a food has zero grams of trans fat if there is less than half a gram per serving. Why is it such a big deal to have less than half a gram of trans fat? Trans fat can add up quickly by eating multiple servings of a food or multiple foods per day with trans fat. Some food products still containing artificial trans fat include baked goods, some snack foods and frozen foods, stick margarines, and vegetable shortenings. The only way to get around the loophole is to read the ingredients list: if the ingredients include the phrase “partially hydrogenated,” then the food contains trans fat.