Earlier this year, the FDA announced its decision to take major action in reducing American consumption of trans fats by banning the use of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) in foods. Within three years, companies must either reformulate their products without PHOs, or petition the FDA to permit them for specific uses.
Organizations like the American Heart Association have worked to reduce and eliminate PHOs since the early 1990s. Finally, in 2013, the FDA recognized that PHOs were no longer “generally recognized as safe”, yet they still appear among ingredients in foods gracing grocery store shelves.
Why aren’t PHOs safe and how do they affect health? Here are four things you need to know:
1. PHOs are the primary source of trans fatty acids in our foods.
Kinsy McNamee, MS, RD, LD, ProMedica Wellness dietitian, explains that trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil. This allows it to be solid and stable at room temperature, which means that the food can be shelf stable.
Because of this shelf stability, PHOs are often used in foods that would otherwise go bad quickly. They are found mostly in foods such as margarine, spreads, baked goods, fried foods, savory snacks, and some frozen foods such as pies and pizza. Other foods that tend to have larger amounts of trans fats are ready made frosting and refrigerated cookie dough, canned biscuits, and cinnamon rolls.
2. PHOs and trans fats are dangerous to heart health.
According to McNamee, PHOs are a double whammy when it comes to heart health because they not only increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels — particularly the small, dense LDL that may be more damaging — they also lower your HDL (good cholesterol). “The combination of a high LDL and low HDL greatly increases your chances of heart disease,” says McNamee. “Additionally, trans fats encourage inflammation, which contributes to chronic disease such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease.”
By reducing the amount of PHOs and trans fats in foods, more hearts can be saved. In fact, American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said taking trans fats out of the food supply could prevent 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and up to 7,000 heart-related deaths a year.
3. Not all hydrogenated oils are the same.
“All PHOs are unhealthy because of how the bonds are changed during processing,” says McNamee. “However, fully hydrogenated oils, such as fully hydrogenated soybean oil, do not appear to have the same detrimental health effects as PHOs.”
4. Trans fat labeling can be confusing.
Currently, trans fats must be labeled, but it can be confusing for consumers. Anything that has 0.5 grams or less of trans fats per serving can be listed as 0 grams of trans fats, explains McNamee. Although this sounds like a small amount, it can add up in your diet if you are eating more than one serving of the food or a lot of foods that contain some trans fats. To avoid this, check the ingredient list of your foods for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “vegetable shortening” and avoid products that include these as an ingredient.
McNamee also warns consumers to be wary when dining out. “Restaurant foods do not often come with food labels, so it’s hard to know what ingredients are being used,” she says. “It’s best to avoid fried foods and desserts when eating out to avoid consuming trans fats.”