For years, trans fats have tainted an array of packaged and fast foods, from baked goods to french fries to coffee creamers. Even the most health-minded of us have consumed them, especially before manufacturers were required to list these partially hydrogenated oils on labels. Since labeling was enforced in 2006, Americans have cut back, empowered by awareness. (Proof: in 2003, the average American intake of trans fats was 4.6 grams per day, according to the FDA, and that number has fallen to about 1 gram per day in 2012.) Still, the ingredient has been very much present in grocery aisles.
According to last week's announcement from the FDA, trans fats are no longer "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). And it's no wonder why: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that eliminating them from our food system could prevent up to 7,000 deaths from heart disase each year and up to 20,000 heart attacks. No GRAS equals no mass use of trans fats, unless companies prove they are safe (good luck with that).
According to a release from the FDA:
“FDA can act when it believes an ingredient is, in fact, not GRAS. And that's what the agency's preliminary determination is doing now with partially hydrogenated oils. A Federal Register notice was published on Nov. 7, 2013, announcing the preliminary determination that PHOs [partially hydrogenated oils] are not GRAS, which includes the opening of a 60-day public comment period."
What makes a healthy ingredient?
After the news came out, I read this interesting piece from the Atlantic, which referenced a time not long ago, when trans fat-containing foods were touted as—gulp—healthy. The article outlines the role manufacturers, media, and even health organizations have played in trans fats' triumphant past and now their ill-fated future, and the steps that were taken to bring trans fats to the market, defend their use, and ultimately defeat them.
There is a long list of other ingredients, including artificial colors and sweeteners, that I hope will be next to go. But is there an ingredient or food that is considered "healthy" (as trans fats once were), which will soon become the ultimate nutritional villain?
With so much exposure to conflicting science and false marketing ploys, there's no way to avoid confusion when it comes to ingredients and health. We certainly can't be expected to idenfity all health "truths" and "myths." But my hope is that through vetted information and the help of health educators and our natural retailers, our days of buying into health fads without the support of factual research has passed.
If we have, in fact, reached a time when trusted information is within our reach and we question things we cannot confirm (cautious not skeptical!), ingredients like trans fats won't have nearly as long of a shelf life. I think we may be there.