Ask the Expert: Will the ban on trans fats help make us healthier?
In June, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not “generally recognized as safe” for use in human food and gave manufacturers three years to remove the offending substances from their products. Mary Flynn, PhD, a research dietitian, clinical associate professor of medicine, and the founder of the Olive Oil Health Initiative of The Miriam Hospital at Brown University, studies relationships between foods and chronic diseases. She explains what’s wrong with trans fats and why more needs to be done.
Trans fatty acids have been linked to increasing risks of heart disease and cancers. Found mainly in commercial baked goods and snacks that require a solid fat, trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to a source of polyunsaturated fat—a vegetable oil such as corn, soybean, or safflower—to solidify the fat to make margarine or shortening and increase shelf life. Like saturated fats, trans fats raise levels of unhealthy LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, but they also lower the healthy HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. This can clog arteries, increasing risk of heart disease; some studies also have linked trans fat consumption to breast, colorectal, and other cancers, as well as type 2 diabetes.
But I don’t see how banning trans fats will significantly improve health. It is a small first step in a very long walk. Trans fats are not in foods we need; instead of banning trans fats, I like the idea of people not buying products that contain them, so they will eventually go off the market. Physicians tell their patients to eat more fruits and vegetables, and that’s nice; but they could say to patients who want to have dessert, once or twice a week you can have an appropriate serving size of something high quality—think full-fat ice cream, cheesecake, frostings made from butter—which would be more satisfying than commercially prepared versions, so they would likely eat less. Doctors have more influence than most health professionals, including nurses and dietitians. They can discourage consumption of commercial baked goods. But if people are aware that commercial desserts and snack foods are unhealthy and they still eat them, that’s their prerogative.