The FDA’s So-Called Trans Fat Ban Has One Massive Loophole

Partially hydrogenated oils will be a historical relic in three years—but what new synthetic, artery-clogging chemicals will take their place?

(Photo: Twitter)

Jun 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

It’s fitting that the first time many Americans heard the term “trans fats” was when a lawsuit tried to ban them. That was in 2003, when a California attorney garnered national attention by seeking an injunction against Kraft for making products riddled with harmful, human-made, partially hydrogenated oils. The lawsuit was dismissed just one day after it was filed, when Kraft announced that it would voluntarily remove trans fats from its products. Nothing forces a consumer-facing company’s hand like a good old-fashioned media firestorm.

Since then, several more companies have done the same, and cities, counties, and states have passed legislation to ban trans fats. Consumption of trans fats fell by an estimated 78 percent between the year that lawsuit was filed and 2012. For more than a decade, all the signs have pointed to nationwide prohibition.

On Tuesday morning, the FDA finally issued what Michael F. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told The New York Times would be “the final nail in the coffin of trans fats.” It outlines a three-year plan that would give food companies time to phase out all partially hydrogenated oils—the main source of trans fats—from their products.

But thanks in part to lobbying efforts by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, an industry group consisting mainly of food companies and food retailers, manufacturers will be allowed to use ingredients aside from partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats, and, as is the case today, they won’t be obligated to disclose trans fat content if it’s below half a gram per serving. That’s because the ban is of PHOs, not trans fats per se. That means if the industry can come up with another ingredient that—like butter, PHOs, and palm oil—performs the magic of adding fat’s mouthfeel while remaining solid at room temperature, and if said ingredient contains trans fats—like some meat and dairy products—well, it will be the food zombie of 2018.

“We applaud the FDA for taking an important step that would eventually eliminate partially hydrogenated oils—the primary source of trans fats in Americans’ diets—in our food,” said Renée Sharp, director of research at the Environmental Working Group. “But we’re disappointed that the FDA did not set a speedy deadline. What’s worse, the FDA has failed to close the labeling loophole that allows processed food manufacturers to avoid full disclosure.”

RELATED: Supermarket Shame: 10 Secret Trans Fat Offenders

In a study EWG released in May, researchers analyzed more than 84,000 grocery store products and found that 27 percent of all products contained trans fats—even though only 2 percent disclosed such contents on the nutrition label. Though less than one gram sounds like a reasonably small amount, in the case of trans fats, which have no safe level of consumption recommended by the American Heart Association, any quantity you consume can be harmful.

So, Why Should You Care? Diet-related diseases account for $71 billion in health care costs and claim the lives of an estimated 580,000 Americans each year, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Not only have trans fats been linked to raising LDL, more commonly known as bad cholesterol, but they’re also associated with lowering HDL—good cholesterol—putting people at risk for heart disease. The FDA’s decision to ban partially hydrogenated oils outright is a big step toward eliminating them from the American diet entirely and, consequently, saving lives. But for people to understand what’s in their food and make the best decisions for their health, the FDA needs to hold food companies accountable for being fully transparent and publicly disclosing all ingredients.

Consumers can use EWG’s Food Scores database to search for foods that are 100 percent free of trans fats. Food Scores highlights products that contain ingredients likely to carry trans fat and measures the content in fractions of grams, punching its own hole in the FDA’s loophole.