In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it will remove artificial trans fat from the food supply, a step expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year. While some trans fat is found naturally in minimal amounts in meat and dairy products, the added product has been a staple of the food industry to improve a product’s shelf life.
“If you take oils naturally found in nature, especially the ones that have a lot of unsaturated fats, they are unstable in food products and get rancid,” said Fadi Aramouni, professor of food processing and food product development at Kansas State University. “Years ago, the food industry developed a process to hydrogenate these fats. When you add hydrogen at high temperatures, it saturates these bonds and makes it more solid — a lot more stable — and in the process forms what we call trans fat. The trans fat — also known as partially hydrogenated oils — are used in a lot of formulations and actually give the food product a little better texture and better taste.”
Trans fat is found in many popular processed foods like baked goods, frozen foods and snack foods. The FDA has given companies three years to remove trans fat from their products, but Aramouni says most companies have already made the adjustment.
“When the FDA required labeling of trans fat in 2006, a lot of companies moved away from using the product,” Aramouni said. “Many big oil suppliers developed types of oils that are stable without being hydrogenated, which is done by changing the fatty acid composition of these oils. Now many of the oils that food companies can buy are stable without having trans fat in them. Other companies started using unsaturated fats or natural oils again, incorporating antioxidants to help maintain the shelf life.”
Aramouni says he doesn’t think the ban will be much of a problem for the food industry since most companies have already made the transition, but he does encourage consumers to be aware of what they’re getting.
Under current nutrition labeling regulations, a product containing less than half a gram of trans fat or fat can claim zero trans fat in the product. Aramouni suggests reading the ingredients list, which requires the food to list any partially hydrogenated oils.