If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) proposed ban on trans fat is carried out, consumers likely won't notice much of a change, even though their foods will be healthier, experts say.
Last week, the FDA issued a proposal that, if finalized, would effectively categorize trans fats as illegal food additives that would need to be phased out.
However, many food companies and restaurants have already removed trans fats from their products, thanks to pressure from health advocates and a 2006 law that required the ingredient to be listed on food labels. [5 Foods That Face Changes with Trans Fat Ban]
Considering trans fat has already been eliminated from so many foods — without people noticing much of a difference in taste, texture or price — consumers likely won't feel additional effects if the ingredient is banned, said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer watchdog group that has advocated for the removal of trans fat.
"Probably 75 percent of trans fats have been removed from foods, and consumers haven't seen anything," Jacobson said. "That’s one of the beauties of getting rid of trans fats."
Removing trans fat
For instance, although trans fat can still be found in some brands of microwave popcorn, other brands, such as Pop Weaver, have eliminated trans fats, showing that it is possible to reformulate this product without the trans fat, according to the CSPI. The same can be said for brands of cookies, piecrusts, margarines and other products that have already been made trans-fat free — including the beloved Oreo.
A ban would push manufacturers that haven't invested in reformulation to "clean up their products," Jacobson said.
Food manufacturers that may have the hardest time removing trans fats are those that make products that need to be baked at very high temperatures, said Tom Brenna, a professor of human nutrition at Cornell University. Trans fats are stable at high temperatures, so they work well in products such as cookies and pizza, which require high baking temperatures, Brenna said.
But even manufacturers of these products have found substitutes, such as palm oil, Brenna said.
Will products be healthier?
Although fast-food restaurants have not been required to label trans fat in their foods, many — including McDonalds — have stopped using oils with trans fat and replaced them with healthier oils, such as canola oil and sunflower oil.
If a ban on trans fat takes effect, restaurants would not be able to buy partially hydrogenated oils (the major source of trans fats) to use for frying, Jacobson said, meaning consumers won't need to worry about hidden trans fats in restaurant food.
A trans-fat ban would also likely make food healthier. When trans fat is removed from a product, the amount of saturated fat in the item sometimes is reduced, according to a 2010 study by the CSPI. Of the 83 reformulated foods analyzed in the study, more than 90 percent had lower total amounts of saturated and trans fat combined, after reformulation. On average, the total amount of saturated and trans fat per serving was reduced by 1.2 grams for packaged foods and 3.9 grams for restaurants foods, after reformulation.
Even when trans fat is replaced with butter, or with oils that have higher amounts of saturated fat, the product is still healthier, Jacobson said. Trans fat is more harmful than saturated fat, because trans fat raises "bad" cholesterol and also lowers "good" cholesterol (whereas saturated fat only raises "bad" cholesterol), the CSPI says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that removing trans fats could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks, and 7,000 deaths from heart disease, each year.
However, even with a trans-fat ban, people would still consume a little trans fat because the ingredient is present naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products, the FDA said, and some oils also have very low amounts of trans fat, even though they are not partially hydrogenated oils.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.