FDA's Trans Fat Ban--Separating Fact from Hype

Some people think that mainstream media is strategically and methodically controlled by the corporate giants and the government, in spite of our having so-called "free speech" and a supposedly-independent press. Other people laugh at such views, prefering to relegate them to the attic-worthy, cobweb-ridden realms of conspiracy theory nonsense. 

The latest development at the FDA, though, concerning trans fatty acids (or "trans fat") is one of the things that fuels such conspiracy theories. The FDA's job, supposedly, is to make sure that the foods and drugs offered to Americans (and the other millions of people around the world that use our products) are relatively safe and reasonably effective. 

If that is so, though, why did it take so long for the FDA to finally declare industrially produced (as opposed to the naturally-occurring type) trans fatty acids (IP-TFAs) unsafe? 

Who cares, some people are saying, why it took the FDA too long to do the right thing--the important thing is that they are doing the right thing. Well, are they?

First of all, the FDA has known about (or been provided with extensive evidence regarding) the potential harmfulness of trans fat for more than 20 years. Not only has the FDA taken too long to do what's right but they have the gall to give the food industry another 3 years to drag their feet. 

Is that what you call "doing the right thing?"

The time factor, though, is not the only problem at hand. There are many vague, sketchy or underhanded things taking place under the table or behind closed doors--things that will fool some people into focusing on this new (though there is nothing "new" about the problem addressed) impetus to finally greatly reduce trans fat (for, indeed, there is no intention to ban it altogether, though that is what some mainstream media articles seem to be suggesting!). 

The fact is that many companies, supposedly, have already implemented plans to get rid of or greatly reduce trans fat from their products. The companies that have not haven't done so, not because there are no viable alternatives, but because industrially produced trans fatty acids are cheap to produce, make foods taste better and help greatly prolong product shelf life.

In other words, in spite of having been given ample notice, as well as plenty of good reasons (not the least of which is saving thousands of lives) to implement the changes, the food industry simply has not wanted to do the right thing. Profits, after all, have always trumped public health and the trans fat situation is an excellent piece of evidence that this has always been so and continues to thrive even today.

So, What Kind of "Hype" Are We Seeing?

What is the mainstream media reporting? Except for one or two articles with a little bit of skepticism or cynicism thrown in for show, the mainstream media is doing its best to (once again) make the FDA look heroic, public health-oriented, and ahead of the time. The experts have spoken and, after presenting unassailable evidence, have convinced the FDA that action needs to be taken. The FDA, in other words, listens and takes appropriate action--when enough evidence is presented.

The question has to be asked:  are these national publications (the New York Times, the Atlantic, MSNBC, CNN, Fox, etc.) spokespersons for the FDA and the food industry or are they really independent, truth-seeking journalistic tools?  Some of the points that will follow tend to suggest the former. 

Many people are being given the impression that industrially produced trans fats are going to be taken out of the food chain but a number of facts (either not mentioned or not given the emphasis deserved) suggest otherwise.  The false impressions, though, one can easily argue, are not springing up accidentally but, rather, by design. 

In fact, the latest declaration by the FDA may be just another ploy to buy the food industry more time; also, there is probably an agenda to help the industry find ways around the new proposed restrictions.

Is this impetus to, supposedly, ban trans fats just hype, or is the FDA (for a change) really interested in getting rid of something so harmful (yet so profitable) in order to protect the public? Here are some facts that should, if you have a conscience and a keen eye, make you skeptical or, at the very least, concerned.

Before descending into these nefarious circumstances, however, perhaps an explanation of terms is in order?

Fat comes in mainly four forms:  saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans (fat) unsaturated. At the molecular level fat is composed mostly of chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The more hydrogen atoms are added to the formula (a process termed "hydrogenation"), the more "saturated" the fat is--i.e., it is more liquid-like at room temperature.  As a general rule, saturated fat raises low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the "bad" form of cholesterol) and lowers high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the "good" one). 

Strangely, however, trans fat is an even worse malefactor than saturated fat, pathologically speaking, in spite of being unsaturated.

The good fats contain fewer hydrogen atoms. Where the missing hydrogen atoms would be are double bonds between the carbon atoms. Both mono and polyunsaturated fat contain these double-bonded carbon atom configurations. Strangely, trans fat also contains these double bonds but, as it turns out, the hydrogen atoms, rather than being on the same side, are on opposite sides. In other words, the main difference between the good fat (mono and polyunsaturated) and trans fat is one of configuration or "molecular shape"--in spite of being composed of the same elements. 

Having the same elements, therefore, does not impede the possibility of something being harmful just by virtue of configurational aberrations--something defenders of sucralose (Splenda) need to keep in mind--but this is something we can discuss in another article.

The main thing to remember is that unsaturated fats can be useful when we want fat/oils in solid form--as in shortening and margarine sticks. Trans fat, because of this chemical quality, has been especially useful in baking, where you want things to maintain solidity. It's also a question of taste, texture, and even long-lasting shelf capacity (in other words, trans fat plays the role of a preservative-like substance in this regard).

Lastly, what we are talking about here is mainly partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). Fully hydrogenated oils (FHOs) don't produce trans fats in high amounts and may not be as handy as PHOs for food processing, preparation and storage purposes (one of the reasons PHOs are preferred).

Troubling Facts and Peculiar Circumstances

1.  First of all, the FDA is not really going after trans fat but only after the artificially-produced trans fatty acids found in or produced by most partly hydrogenated oils. Actually, saying one is banning trans fat is like saying one is banning cholesterol. Such a goal would simply not be feasible in either case. Trans fat can occur naturally--most notably in meats and some dairy products; it can also be produced in the high-heat processing of oils and, in small amounts, even in fully hydrogenated oils.

2.  Will the new impetus against trans fat force the FDA to re-define what "0% trans fat" actually means?  According to current policy, a product that contains less than .5 grams of trans fat can claim to contain "0%." This is misleading, especially since the claim can be made "per serving"--in other words, a person may consume slightly less than 2.5 grams of trans fat (after eating 5 servings) in a product that the FDA says is "trans fat free."

3.  The new ban will allow companies to petition for exemptions from the ban. If the FDA could guarantee that the process would be transparent and totally public, this might not be such a big issue but it's pretty safe to say that many exemptions will be granted and, as usual, it's consumers who will pay the price for these back-door deals and "special" (maybe involving "bribes?") dispensations. 

4.  Will the industry use this ban as an excuse to replace partially hydrogenated oils with heavily saturated fats and oils? This will only lead to the same LDH and HDL problems supposedly being averted.

5.  Both the city of New York and the state of California banned industrially produced trans fatty acids (IP-TFA) before the FDA. How can cities and states be ahead of the FDA? Actually, other places in the US had such bans and some have been in the process of enacting such bans.

6.  Not enough emphasis is being given to the fact that cardiovasculal disease is not the only problem unnecessarily exacerbated by trans fat. Other medical problems scientifically attributed to trans fat include some forms of cancer, diabetes, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, fertility issues, pregnancy complications, impaired growth, nasty effects on breastfeeding infants and on fetuses, cognitive dysfunction, mental illness, stroke, etc.

7.  The GRAS ("generally regarded as safe") system used by the FDA is mostly voluntary, somewhat vague, misleading, and easily abused. In fact, it may give the public a false sense of security. There is also the fact that many of the so-called experts called upon by the FDA to declare subtances like PHO "GRAS" work for organizations and businesses with vested financial interests in these products. Could this partly explain why/how the FDA allowed PHO GRAS status for so long, in spite of it being so egregiously "not-safe?"

8.  Trans fat raising LDL and loweing HDL are not the only bad complications of PHO. Other processes may be at work, as studies indicate, both to motivate CVD and to trigger other health aberrations. The mainstream media, however, seems obsessed with this one potential medical problem, as if the others were of lesser importance.

9.  This problem well illustrates the fact that food additives are, at best, only marginally supervised and monitored by the FDA. In fact, many food additives in our foods were never either properly tested for safety issues or even reported at all to the FDA. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), as a matter of fact, reported that 275 chemicals discovered in some foods had never been reported to the FDA. 

10.  Testing of food additives (like PHO) is often left to the food industry. In fact, the FDA uses such ridiculous terms as "independent GRAS determination" and "GRAS self-determination." In other words, we are asked to rely on the same people who have insisted on using artificially-produced trans fat for so long in spite of its blatant harmfulness?

11. We have known about the dangers of trans fat as early as 1950. The conclusion came from revealing clinical studies involving dead corpses, as well as animal studies. In fact, the Institute of Medicine in 2002 declared that there is no safe level of trans fat. Knowing all this, why is the food industry getting another 3 years to get away with, to put it bluntly, nutritional murder?

12.  The government is leaving out of the official "ban" oils with trans fat contents of 2% or lower, such as may be found in meats, dairy products, non-hydrogenated refined oils, fully hydrogenated oils, PHOs used in the production of food  (not directly and deliberately introduced into foods--in other words, not a deliberate food additive), oils subjected to new hydrogenation technology (depending on circumstances), etc. It should be noted that all these sources combined can lead to substantial amounts of trans fat--yet another reason why it's irresponsible to report that the FDA is getting rid of trans fat (even the artificially produced kind) from the American diet!

13. Interestingly, the FDA had already labelled as non-GRAS partially hydrogenated soybean oil and partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil (the most commonly used PHOs by the food industry); they have been in use, however, because the food industry took it upon itself (albeit with impunity) to declare these "GRAS" on their own, though the fact that they did this before 1958 makes it okay since it involved "prior use." This is yet another way the FDA lets legal mumbo-jumbo blur what laws are supposed to guard against.  Who is to say more legal mumbo-jumbo will not be used, yet again, by a food industry that is mostly apathetic and negligent? Is the FDA any better?

14. The use of some of these "hydrogenated" oils will remain in questionable status in spite of the ban. Partially hydrogenated low erucic acid rapeseed oil (LEAR oil) and menhaden oil, for example, may continue to be considered GRAS by the FDA, perhaps because (according to the FDA) these are not now widely used in foods.  This is yet another nebulous aspect of the partially hydrogenated oil ban. 

15.  This trans fat ban does not apply to animal feed. Considering that studies showed that trans fat is especially unhealthy to animals, why is this so? Why aren't animal rights groups being clearly informed of this discrepancy?

16.  This order does not apply to PHOs when used as a raw material in order to synthesize any other food ingredients. This may be an indirect way that the new rule may be bypassed or foiled. The FDA recognizes this when they readily admit: "The use of PHOs as raw materials to make other food ingredients may result in the incorporation of industrially-produced trans fat into these ingredients." 

17.  The order does not include the employment of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in foods. The FDA does not consider CLA a PHO. This may not be a problem except in regards to questions that may arise as to other fatty acids that may marginally be classified as PHOs, as well as to how these peripheral fatty acids may relate to trans fat issues (when used as food additives).

18.  A more troubling exclusion is partially hydrogenated methyl ester of resin. Though the  PHO aspect may be put aside, the hydrogenation issue may bring  up a few juicy questions, such as what may be expected (trans fat- wise) when these are used as food additives, if at all.

19.  Another FDA view that raises eyebrows is the allowance made that a substance declared GRAS might be used in some foods in spite of not necessarily being deemed a "food additive"--in that case, such a substance "may lawfully be utilized for that use without FDA review or approval." Is it that difficult to see how such open-ended designations can easily be abused?

20.  The FDA proudly compares its new ban to it having banned "sulfiting agents on fruits and vegetables intended to be served or sold raw to consumers." If the ban on PHOs is conducted the same way, though, we are in trouble.  The sulfur-derived agents (sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfate, etc.) banned on raw fruits and veggies, though, continue to be allowed at other times and in processed foods--in other words, such bans are sometimes insufficiently enforced or implemented. Will the same be said of the new ban on PHO trans fat 10 years from now?

21.  Retailers and distributors may not be subject to the ban in the same way manufacturers will be, in spite of the FDA hinting on its website that the whole food industry will be held accountable. This is a threat, however, that does not go in line with past enforcement of such rules or with the limited (in terms of resources) law enforcement capacity of the FDA. The matter of imported foods, for example, imparts further confusion into the matter, especially in regards to how much trans fat may be inflicted unto consumers, most likely unknowingly.

22.  The FDA calling this order a "product of informal adjudication" is itself troubling. Considering how important this matter is and how many thousands of lives may be at stake, shouldn't the FDA use stronger measures or, at the very least, not give the impression (with such weak words, even if technically correct) that there is anything about such an order that can possibly be called "informal." The idea is to make people fearful of the order, hopefully motivating them to comply--or are these code words for "don't worry, Big Food, we're just fooling stupid consumers into a false sense of security!"

23.  The FDA suggesting that a reduction in trans fat in the past (mostly voluntarily) has not resulted in greatly increased use of saturated fat (as an alternative) is a faulty argument since trans fat's use (in spite of supposedly being reduced) has continued to an underestimated extent, especially in restaurants and fast food places (which usually don't provide informative labels to customers). 

24.  The FDA asking companies wanting exemptions to submit research/study result data almost gives the idea that they are not sure that the study results thus far obtained are proof enough that trans fat is bad news. What magic bullet does the FDA expect that can possibly alter present views of trans fat's catastrophic qualities?

25.  Although the FDA claims that economic considerations have not greatly affected its decision to finally ban PHO, the fact that it has taken so long to do so loudly says otherwise, as does its decision to grant exemptions, give the industry another 3 years to comply, and contiue to uphold its ridiculous voluntary system.


Although the move to ban PHO and, indirectly, trans fat (although, at best, the FDA is merely attempting to reduce its use), is a good move, the way the FDA is going about it smells rotten to anyone who looks at this whole thing closely and attentively. Once again, the FDA is proving that it's better at putting on an act than it is at doing what is legally, morally and ethically right.

For your part, don't put your trust in this government agency or the food and drug conglomerates that seem to own it. Instead, follow these simple rules to protect yourself against trans fat:

  • Avoid trans fat whenever possible; remember that 0% trans fat doesn't mean what it says.
  • Use butter instead of stick margarine.
  • Beware of so-called low-fat dairy products. In some cases, you may be better off with whole-fat milk (products), if you must have milk. If you can find it, purchase organic dairy products.
  • Concentrate on foods that are naturally low in fat and high in fiber (i.e., beans, whole grains, peas, fruits and veggies).
  • Use liquid oils (preferably the ones with mono and polyunsaturated fat, like olive oil) instead of solid fats (i.e, lard or shortening). 
  • Instead of frying, steam, bake, grill or broil. Few fried things (even when fried in good oils) are good for you.
  • Eat fish; most contain less saturated fat than other meats; they can also be rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Buy lean meats, preferably organic.
  • Ask if the places you eat at use partially hydrogenated oil or other high saturation or trans fat oils; if so, find another place to eat at. Stay away from places that only know how to fry food.
  • Keep an eye on calories; the higher the calories, the more likely a food will contain high amounts of bad fat.
  • Always read food labels.

Don't depend on the FDA or any other entiity to guard your health.  Ultimately, your health is your responsibility.

Copyright, 2015.  Fred Fletcher.  All rights reserved.

References & Resources












6/23/2015 7:00:00 AM
Fred Fletcher
Written by Fred Fletcher
Fred Fletcher is a hard working Consumer Advocacy Health Reporter. Education: HT-CNA; DT-ATA; MS/PhD Post-Graduate Certificates/Certifications: • Project Management • Food Safety • HIPAA Compliance • Bio-statistical Analysis & Reporting • Regulatory Medical Writing • Life Science Programs Theses & Dis...
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I need to address two important points. Firstly, if you prefer margarine over butter, the spreadable kind is better than the stick. The worst kind of fat is the one that is most solid at room temperature since that type of fat is more likely to solidify inside the arteries. Since butter is very high in saturated fat, I am not comfortable recommending it at this time. The tide is turning toward butter & whole milk but I personally still have reservations. Saturated fat may not be as bad as we were previously told but, since studies still say that saturated fat can raise LDL & lower HDL, I urge a cautious approach. Also, be aware that all fat, not just "bad" fat is high in calories. In fact, that's one of the main roles of fatty acids: to store energy away for later use. This is one of the reasons we need to consume a certain amount of fat daily, preferably the low saturation, mono and polyunsaturated and non-trans fat types.
Posted by Fred Fletcher
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