Most Companies Replace Trans Fat with Healthier Fats, Study Finds

May 26, 2010

WASHINGTON—When food manufacturers and chain restaurants reduced or eliminated artificial trans fat, the reformulated foods almost always ended up lower in their total amount of trans and saturated fat. That finding, published in the May 27 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, effectively disproves speculation that food manufacturers would merely replace partially hydrogenated oils—the source of artificial trans fat—with saturated fat from butter, lard, or palm oil. And, it means that getting rid of artificial trans fat usually resulted in foods that are healthier for hearts, according to the researchers.

In the largest survey of its kind ever done in the United States, researchers identified 83 brand-name packaged and restaurant foods that had been made with trans fat prior to 2007, but then were reformulated to largely eliminate the trans fat.

The study found that the overall content of both fats combined was reduced in 90 percent (52 of 58) of the supermarket products and 96 percent (24 of 25) of the restaurant products, with average total reductions of 1.2 and 3.9 grams per serving, respectively. The study was conducted by Dariush Mozaffarian of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health and Michael F. Jacobson and Julie S. Greenstein of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“This study should alleviate concerns that most food manufacturers and restaurants would simply switch to a shortening high in saturated fat when they reformulated their products without trans fat,” Mozaffarian said. “In only a small handful of baked goods, more saturated fat was added than trans fat subtracted following reformulation. Still, because a gram of trans fat is more harmful than a gram of saturated fat, even those changes represented relative improvements. In the majority of products, trans fat was reduced or eliminated without corresponding increases in saturated fat. In the case of reformulated restaurant foods, not only was trans fat largely eliminated, but saturated fat also was reduced—making for a much healthier food.”

For example, a large order of McDonald’s French fries used to have 13 grams of saturated and trans fats, but ended up with only 3.5 grams. The total amount of trans and saturated fats in Gorton’s Crunchy Golden Fish Sticks declined from 7 grams to 4 grams. In one of the exceptions, an Entenmann’s frosted doughnut, which started with 5 grams of saturated fat and 5 grams of trans fats, ended up with no trans fat, but 12 grams of saturated fat. The authors note that some foods, such as pie crusts and pastries, may need a small amount of hard fat, like butter or palm oil, to have a flaky texture.

“This paper demonstrates that the U.S. food industry has been generally responsible in replacing partially hydrogenated oils with more healthful oils,” Jacobson said. “That should pave the way for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils from the food supply. The agency could do that quite easily by stating that it no longer considers partially hydrogenated oil to be ‘generally recognized as safe,’ and give companies a year or two to switch to healthier oils.”


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