Here's How the FDA's Trans Fat Ban Threatens Wild Animal Habitats

If food manufacturers can't use trans fats, they could turn to less sustainable oils.

The FDA's Trans Fat Ban Threatens Wild Animal Habitats

(Photo by Samuel Kessier/Getty; Design by Lauren Wade)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

In a surprise move this morning, federal officials announced that they’ll eliminate the main source of trans fats from processed foods—but there's concern that the move could have negative repercussions for wildlife and developing economies around the world.

Grocery store shelves are saturated with products that sport front-of-the-package labels boasting “No Trans Fats Inside,” so you’d be forgiven if you thought the artery-clogging fat had already vanished from the marketplace.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's moves to bring awareness to the ills of partially hydrogenated oils and have worked to reduce their use. Trans fat content began appearing on the Nutrition Facts label in 2006, and Americans went from eating 4.6 grams of the stuff a day in 2003 to 1 gram a day in 2012.

In a conference call Thursday, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said a substantial number of processed food products, including “certain desserts, microwave popcorn products, frozen pizzas, margarines and coffee creamers,” still contained harmful levels of trans fats, making it a serious public health concern.

“Further reduction in the amount of trans fat in the American diet could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year,” said Hamburg.

Food safety group Center for Science in the Public Interest has unabashedly been pointing fingers at companies whose products still contain trans fats.

“Diamond Foods’ Pop Secret Premium Butter Popcorn has 5 grams of trans fat per serving—and it’s not uncommon for people to have more than one serving of popcorn at one sitting. Varieties of ConAgra’s Marie Callender’s pies have 3.5 or 4 grams per serving, and Pillsbury Grand! Cinnamon Rolls with icing have 2 grams of trans fat per serving,” said CSPI in a statement.

While most major restaurant chains have eliminated it from their menus, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, and Popeyes still offer items that contain some partially hydrogenated oil in localities where the law does not require use of healthier oils. Long John Silver’s came under fire this summer after its Big Catch meal, which comes with a side of hushpuppies and onion rings, was declared the “Worst Restaurant Meal in America.” The fried platter contained a heart-stopping 33 grams of trans fat.

Marion Nestle, a nationally recognized public health nutrition expert and a professor at New York University, says it’s about time the FDA moved on the issue.

“It’s a no-brainer. Trans fats are bad. Get rid of them. They’re not essential to food. They’re artificial. They’re replaceable by other fats,” she says. “There is the half-a-gram-per-serving loophole that allows food manufacturers to report it as zero on the label, but with this action, that loophole is being closed, as I see it.”

Manufacturers go through the process to hydrogenate fats for texture and thickening. (Picture that creamy Oreo filling, though Nabisco removed trans fats from the beloved cookie in 2006.) But after a number of scientific studies concluded it was raising the levels of bad cholesterol while lowering good cholesterol levels, the FDA required labeling.

After that mandate, food manufacturers began experimenting with using other oils, leading many to consider another controversial ingredient, palm oil. The University of Minnesota publication Ensia magazine last week reported why palm oil is one of the most destructive ingredients on the planet. 

“There’s big worry about that,” says Nestle.

There’s broad knowledge that producing palm oil results in clearing forests, destruction of habitat for wild animals and a loss of livelihood for subsistence farmers. Species threated by palm oil production include the freakishly cute slow loris, Sumatran tigers and orangutans

Yet, palm oil remains a frequent ingredient in products such as margarine, peanut butter, crackers, cookies, candy, and ice cream.

If palm oil emerges as the go-to replacement for food manufacturers, voracious demand for it could have serious environmental consequences.

Part of the solution for our consumerist country is the sort of restraint that could lead to reduction in demand.

Maybe Americans should cut back on cookies, candy, ice cream, and every other goodie that gets overeaten in our obesity-addled country, whether it's laden with trans fats or not.

It wouldn't solve every problem, but it couldn't hurt.

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