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U.S. Trans Fats Ruling: A much overdue move to improve overall health of the population

On Tuesday June 6, 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a bold and positive step in announcing its decision that trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils should be phased out from the U.S. food supply within three years. This trans fats ruling is not a surprising decision, since trans fats have been on almost everyone’s radar as a goal to minimize its consumption and improve overall health of the consumers.

In the U.S., a significant loophole existed ever since the FDA’s earlier ruling in 2003 that in fact allowed continued sale of packaged foods that contained less than 0.5g trans per serving size. This also meant that even when consumers choose products that are labeled zero trans, they could still end up consuming small but additive amounts of trans. The food industry therefore took advantage of this, and trans has persisted in a number of manufactured foods ever since.
To the concerned health professionals who took the cue from the earlier Institute of Medicine (IOM) 2002 report that declared any level of trans was not warranted, the latest FDA ruling will be seen as a long overdue reward for their relentless battles to eliminate trans from the US food supply.

If you are not already in the know about trans, here are some health issues associated with its consumption at any level of intake, which is supported by a strikingly large body of scientific evidence that cascaded since 1990 from the landmark study of Mensink and Katan:

“Consumption of trans-containing foods is linked to higher body weight gain (probably a trigger to increased obesity), increased heart disease through raised bad LDL-cholesterol and reduced beneficial HDL-cholesterol, memory loss and increased risk of diabetes as well. In addition there have been significant concerns on its effects when pregnant women consume trans-containing products. Fetal development may be impaired and birth weights of infants have been reported to be significantly lower.”

The medical experts are unanimous in their support for the removal of trans. For example, this quote from Dr. Steven Nissen, the chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, and reported by CNN on June 16, 2015, praised the FDA for its “bold courage” and said it “deserves a lot of credit” for taking this “enormously important” move.
“In many ways, trans fat is a real tragic story for the American diet,” Nissen said. “In the 1950s and ’60s, we mistakenly told Americans that butter and eggs were bad for them and pushed people to margarine, which is basically trans fat. What we’ve learned now is that saturated fat is relatively neutral — it is the trans fat that is really harmful and we had made the dietary situation worse.”

Among the most outstanding scientists, instrumental in this decision, one must surely acknowledge the centurion (100 years old this year) scientist, Professor Kummerow at the University of Illinois. He was a visionary who observed the artery-clogging effects of trans way back in 1957. He was often the sole discerning voice in some of America’s most powerful American Heart Association sub-committees on health and nutrition, and he detailed the massive amounts of harmful trans that were finding their way into the American food supply, causing significant health problems. But the industry lobbies were so strong that trans remained and increased significantly aided by America’s pent-up fury against tropical oils (palm, coconut and palm kernel oils) in the 1980s and their role in increased heart disease risk. Kummerow is also well remembered when in 2013, frustrated by a lack of concerted action from the authorities, he filed a suit against the FDA for not acting sooner to remove trans fats from the diet. Many see this move as the turning point when FDA reacted and since made this monumental June 16 decision.

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The absolute zero trans ruling will definitely prove a challenge for the food industry which has to quickly work on substitute fat formulations that continue to deliver the texture, taste and performance of the current products. Thus the three-year changeover timeline is seen as a justified option. In the pipeline are new varieties of GMO-traited oils that would be rich in saturated (mainly stearic) acids, reduced content of linoleic and linolenic acids coupled with higher oleic acid content. These all sound very promising but final adoption based on functionality and pricing has continued to be most challenging indeed. Alternate fat modification processes including use of fully hydrogenated and enzymatically interesterified fats have also made their appearance and often failed to make their long term mark as the preferred trans alternative among food manufacturers. Palm oil and palm fractions thus continue to provide the most viable options and in the immediate run-up to these rulings, palm oil and products is expected to make some gains and favors among U.S. food manufacturers.

While these developments are seen as positive in steps to reduce diet associated degenerative disease risk factors, let us also remember that the use of partially hydrogenated trans fats are highly prevalent throughout the Indian sub-continent, Middle East especially Iran, South East Asia and large parts of Africa. Definitely all these populations are at continued risk from trans although currently the impact is not so dramatic, possibly due to overall low fat consumption in these regions.

The WHO/FAO Codex Alimentarius, which has significant influence in this matter throughout these regions, for reasons best known to them, has not gone full swing to alert the dangers of trans and moot for its complete removal. Instead they continue to lumber on the risks associated with saturated fats although the scientific evidence against saturated fats and CHD risk is fast being dismantled. Indeed if collectively we are to make significant inroads in improving the health of populations outside the USA, it is a crucial cross road warranting local food authorities and Codex Alimentarius in association with food manufacturers adopt the U.S. FDA ruling and target to remove partially hydrogenated trans fats from the global food supply, once and for all.

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