More Progress Needed to Eliminate Artificial Trans Fat from Packaged Foods, Researchers Say

Progress Has Almost Stopped

May 23, 2013

Food manufacturers have made considerable progress reformulating products to reduce or eliminate artificial trans fat in doughnuts, margarine, frozen French fries, and other foods, but in more recent years progress has virtually stopped according to new research published today in the peer-reviewed journal Preventing Chronic Disease by scientists at Harvard and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Because even low levels of trans fat promote heart disease, much more work needs to be done to further reduce the use of partially hydrogenated oil—the source of artificial trans fat in the food supply.

To determine the pace and types of subsequent product reformulations, in 2007 the researchers identified 360 brand-name products that contained at least a half a gram of trans fat or more per serving, and reexamined those products in 2008, 2010, and 2011 to track their trans-fat content. By 2011, two-thirds, or 178 of the 270 products still on the market, had reduced their trans-fat content. In most cases trans fat was reduced to less than half a gram per serving, although half of these reformulated products still contained some partially hydrogenated oil. Among all 270 products, the average trans-fat content decreased by about half, from 1.9 to 0.9 grams per serving.

In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration required that trans fat be listed on Nutrition Facts labels, prompting many food manufacturers to reformulate. Massive adverse publicity and lawsuits also spurred progress.

"Industrially produced trans fats are powerful promoters of heart disease, so it is welcome news that food manufacturers are using less," said senior author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School. "But, we found that reformulations to reduce trans fat significantly slowed over time, and we also found large variations in reformulations among different food categories and companies."

On average, the largest overall gram-per-serving declines were seen for doughnuts, crackers, and pies, according to the study. The smallest percentage declines were seen for rolls, margarines, and microwave popcorns. In all years, popcorn products had the most artificial trans fat, with 4.5 grams per serving in 2007 and with 3.8 grams per serving in 2011—a decline of just 0.7 grams per serving.

It is clear that it is perfectly possible to make microwave popcorns without partially hydrogenated oil, according to CSPI. Pop Weaver has eliminated it in all of its microwave popcorns. Orville Redenbacher has eliminated it in all but two varieties. But Pop Secret's Butter Popcorn still has 5 grams of artificial trans fat per serving. Someone eating a small serving would consume more trans fat than the American Heart Association recommends consuming over the course of five days.

Among the 270 products studied, most of the progress occurred between 2007 and 2008, when the average trans-fat content decreased by 30 percent. Between 2010 and 2011, that progress slowed dramatically, with reductions of just 3.4 percent.

"Products that contain less than half a gram of trans fat per serving may list zero grams on Nutrition Facts labels," said study co-author Dr. Fadar Otite, a researcher at Harvard School of Public Health. "But even those can contribute harmful levels of trans fat. That's particularly true for something like microwave popcorn, where one might well consume several servings at once."

The researchers also looked at which companies made the most progress. Of 48 parent companies, 20 had at least four products with trans fat. Of those, Cole's Quality Foods, which makes frozen garlic bread and breadsticks, Schwan Food Company, which makes frozen pies and pizza, and Tasty Baking Company, which makes Tastykake baked goods, achieved the biggest percentage declines in trans fat. The smallest declines were seen in foods made by American Pies (which only reduced trans fat by 3 percent), Giant Foods, and ConAgra Foods.

Although small amounts of trans fat are naturally present in milk and meat, most trans fat in the diet comes from partially hydrogenated oil, which was widely used in baked goods, margarines, and frying oils. However, research has shown that trans fat raises LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, which promotes heart disease, while lowering HDL, the "good" cholesterol that helps protect against heart disease.

CSPI, which in 1994 filed the petition that prompted FDA to add trans fat to Nutrition Facts labels, petitioned the agency again in 2004 to prohibit the use of partially hydrogenated oil. New York City, California, and other jurisdictions have enacted prohibitions on the use of artificial trans fat in restaurants, causing major reformulations in the restaurant industry. But as with packaged-food manufacturers, some chain restaurants, such as Long John Silver's, still have more work to do.

"Artificial trans fat wreaks havoc on Americans' metabolism and blood chemistry, something the FDA has known for 15 years," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "This study clearly indicates that some food companies simply can’t be relied upon to get rid of trans fat on their own. The FDA could solve this problem once and for all, and save thousands of lives, with the stroke of a pen."


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