Bye-bye, partially hydrogenated fat

Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is on the way out, with last week's FDA announcement that it was withdrawing GRAS status for this food ingredient Sealing its fate. When I heard the news, I flashed back to a visit to a Minneapolis bakery in 1999, when I was still fairly new to the world of food production.

Trans fats were high on the don't-consume list of a friend who was tuned in to healthy eating and was eager to educate me on dangers he perceived in processed foods. While touring the Minneapolis bakery with one of the owners, I innocently asked why bakers used partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in the first place. He paused, stared and uttered not a word, but his eyes said, "Because it's cheap, dummy."

Partially hydrogenated fat was hailed as a healthier alternative when it was introduced because it was a substitute for butter and other animal-derived fats. Over time, scientists discovered the downside of hydrogenation, and by the time my friend was filling my ear, it was understood that the ingredient couldn't be metabolized and remained in the body for a lifetime. As the evidence mounted, FDA was forced to act, settling in 2003 for label disclosures of trans-fat levels in food products. A short decade later, a death blow is being delivered.

The headlines proclaimed a ban on partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, but that's a layman's understanding. As folks in the industry understand, all novel ingredients are subject to toxicological review and need to be regarded as GRAS—generally regarded as safe—before food manufacturers will use them. Self-proclaimed GRAS will do for innocuous inclusions and processing aids, but FDA's imprimatur is needed in most cases. The agency moves at glacial speed, and GRAS review can take decades, as the gene splicers behind genetically engineered salmon or the refiners of stevia-based sweeteners can testify. The flip side is that withdrawing GRAS status also can take decades. In the end, FDA was simply acknowledging overwhelming health data that this man-made ingredient is not generally recognized as safe.

News reports pointed out that many food companies already had taken action and had reformulated products to use alternative fats and oils. Others have continued to use hydrogenated oils at reduced levels, taking advantage of a labeling loophole that waives a label declaration if there is less than 0.5 g per serving.

Private grumbling about the FDA ruling undoubtedly is going on, but it is muted. A quick search of the terms trans fat + nanny state returned 8.2 million hits, most of them commenting on the dearth of complaints. Of course, the results were peppered with semi-literate screed denouncing this victory for public health. We're lucky Jonas Saulk came up with his polio vaccine in the 1950s: today, he'd be denounced as a nanny state Commie, and sales of crutches and wheelchairs would be going through the roof.

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