The U.S. Food and Drug Administration enacted a plan to remove artificial trans fats from the American food supply. FDA Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff said the ban, which will be phased in over three years, “is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”
What’s so bad about trans fats? Numerous studies show trans fats raise cholesterol levels, increase risk of heart disease or stroke, and have been connected to insulin resistance, which is the body’s ability to use insulin properly. Insulin resistance can lead to diabetes. Trans fats promote inflammation in the body’s tissues, which contributes to heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, reducing consumption of trans fats could prevent 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 coronary heart disease deaths per year in the United States.
Moreover, a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that trans fats were linked to worsened memory function in men aged 45 and younger.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, analyzed responses from more than 1,000 men and women to a survey on diet and a memory test using word recall. Men 45 and younger successfully recalled 86 words, on average. However, every single gram of trans fats added to their diet resulted in an average reduction in success rate of .76 words. The men with the highest amount of trans fats in their diet could expect to recall 12 words fewer than those whose diet did not include trans fats at all.
“Trans fats were most strongly linked to worse memory in men during their high productivity years,” says Beatrice A. Golomb, MD, PhD, lead author and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. “Trans fat consumption has previously shown adverse associations to behavior and mood—other pillars of brain function. However, to our knowledge, a relation to memory or cognition had not been shown.”
While trans fats are found naturally in very small amounts in meat and dairy products, artificial trans fats have, for many years, been added to lots of food products to preserve shelf life. But, “as I tell patients, while trans fats increase the shelf life of foods, they reduce the shelf life of people,” Golomb says.
Trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils, “are used in a lot of formulations and actually give the food product a little better texture and better taste,” says Fadi Aramouni, professor of food processing and food product development at Kansas State University.
The FDA requires food manufacturers to label trans fats on their products, and some companies have already replaced trans fats with unsaturated fats or natural oils, Aramouni says. He says he doesn’t think the ban will be much of a problem for the food industry since most companies have already made the transition, but he does encourage consumers to be aware of what they’re getting and check the label. Products with zero trans fat (or other fat) on the label can contain less than half a gram.