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The FDA has ordered the complete removal of trans fats from foods within the next three years. Dr. Walter Willett the Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health discusses the effect this will have on Americans’ health and their favorite snacks.
In health news today, the Food and Drug Administration moved to effectively ban artificial trans fats, declaring that partially hydrogenated oils, known as PHOs, and the main source of artificial trans fats, are unsafe for use in human food.
Food manufacturers have three years to get rid of the PHOs, a move the FDA said could prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks each year.
For more on today's announcement, we turn to Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Thank you for joining us, Dr. Willett.
If you could please start by explaining for people who don't understand, where do they find, where do you see trans fats?
DR. WALTER WILLETT, Department of Nutrition Chairman, Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Trans fats have been widely used in the food supply as a substitute for lard and butter.
We found them in shortenings? We found them in margarines, baked goods, deep-fried products. Fortunately, about 80 percent or 85 percent of trans fats have been removed from the food supply by this time.
Well, OK, let's talk about that, because if the FDA is just today saying that they were banned and we have already lost 80 — almost, as you pointed out, 80 percent of trans fats in the food supply since 2003, what is the need for this full ban now?
DR. WALTER WILLETT:
Even the relatively small amount of trans fats remaining are still likely to be causing around 7,000 premature deaths from heart disease per year.
That's still a large number and definitely worth the ban taking effect to really get trans fat off the table entirely.
Why isn't simply labeling the foods not sufficient, so people can decide if that's something they want to consume or not?
Well, the problem is that many foods don't have labels on them. When we were able to put trans fat on the food label for those foods that do have a label, the manufacturers quickly removed trans fats from most of those products, but they kept selling trans fats in restaurants, where there are no food labels, providing quite clear evidence that just labeling alone was very important, but it's not a sufficient way of getting trans fats out of the food supply.
So, prepared foods are a danger zone.
But explain to me the health connection. You said and the FDA said that thousands of heart attacks would be prevented because of this kind of ruling. What is the connection?
There are many kinds of studies that have looked at trans fat.
In short-term feeding studies, we see that trans fats increase LDL, the bad cholesterol, reduce HDL, the good cholesterol, increase inflammatory factors, and have many other adverse metabolic effects. Then, in long-term epidemiologic studies, we see clear evidence repeated in many studies that higher intake of trans fats is associated with higher risk of heart disease, and, in more recent studies, with many other conditions, such as diabetes and infertility. Trans fats really are a metabolic poison.
So, if trans fats have been in our food or at least for most of our living — our lives, what substitutes for them? There's a reason why they were there in the first place, I assume to extend shelf life, for instance, for goods and preserve them. But what takes their place?
There is no single substitute for trans fat. It depends what you're doing with a — that — with the trans fat.
For frying, liquid vegetable oils work perfectly well. And the restaurant industry has very completely switched over to trans fat-free oils for deep frying. For baking and some of other cooking, types of cooking, it's a little more complicated, but there are many alternatives to trans fats. Sometimes, still liquid vegetable oils work perfectly fine.
Sometimes, a little bit of palm oil or a little bit of coconut fat will be needed if there's a crispiness that's an important part of that food.
Finally — pardon me — finally, the FDA says there's a three-year clock on this. If this is indeed poison, the word you used, why make it immediate?
This was a bit of a compromise.
Parts of the industry pushed back quite hard against a more immediate trans fat ban. Hopefully, I think industries, many industries will take — see the writing on the wall and get trans fats out of their products well before that three years.
Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, thank you very much.
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