Could this be the death of the doughnut as we know it?
The Food and Drug Administration moved Thursday to virtually eliminate trans fat, an artificially created artery-clogging substance, from Americans’ diets, a decision that could affect several types of foods, including baked goods.
The move follows a massive effort by food makers and restaurant chains to remove the substance over the last decade, as consumers become more educated about risks and vote for healthier alternatives with their wallets. The FDA has required nutritional labels break out trans fat content since 2006, a regulation that spurred many companies to alter their recipes.
Trans fats, still used in a number of products from margarine and coffee creamer to frozen pizza, are a major health concern for Americans despite lower consumption over the last 20 years. The primary dietary source of trans fats in the American diet come from partially hydrogenated oils.
The FDA believes that further reduction in the amount of trans fat in Americans’ diets could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths a year. The agency has opened a 60-day review period to collect additional data before it moves to ban trans fats. The ban would likely be a gradual process with full compliance expected within a few years.
Trans fats are used mostly for texture and stability – they allow products to have a longer shelf life, give flakiness to crusts and biscuits and keep peanut butter from separating.
Wonder if the food you’re eating has them? First, read the label, and look for partially hydrogenated fats or oil listed, suggested Peter Horvath, assistant professor in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences. Since 2006, manufacturers have been required to list them on food packaging.
“The things you want to look at are the really flaky crusts and cookies, because usually what’s done is the trans fats have been substituted for saturated fats to make that texture,” he said. Cereals, even granolas, can have them too.
If you go out, look at things that are really flaky, or fried, he said. Canola oil-fried products usually should be relatively low in trans fats.
Most major restaurant chains almost completely did away with partially hydrogenated oils in the mid- to late-2000s, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. A handful of chains, such as Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s and Popeyes, still have menu items that contain some partially hydrogenated oil, according to the watchdog group.
Many restaurants in New York State already have figured out how to avoid artificial trans fats, after New York City and Albany County banned their use.
“The recipes that they found the hardest to transition were baked goods, pie crusts, things like that,” said New York State Restaurant Association President Melissa Autilio Fleischut. “Doughnuts, I heard, were a tough one.”
But “they have managed, as far as I know,” she said.
Wegmans supermarkets have been working on replacing artificial trans fats in its products since the 1990s, said Jane Andrews, Wegmans’ manager of nutrition and product labeling, and a registered dietician.
“We have taken it out of a heck of a lot of things, but it has been a problem to remove it in some specific items. Generally, these are baked goods. Doughnuts, things that are fried, frycakes – we have had difficulty coming up with an adequate replacement.
“Products that consumers expect to have a very light texture, or when you have something going through a fryer and then have a glaze that needs to stick to it, some of those have presented problems for us.”
Wegmans will continue to work on eliminating trans fats, she said. “We’re down to the hardest ones to work on, but we’ll keep going after it. If we can’t find an adequate replacement, we’ll no longer carry the product,” Andrews said. In time, with increased demand, ingredient suppliers may develop replacements, she noted.
The FDA says Americans’ consumption of trans fats has declined almost 80 percent in the last decade thanks to broader education about their risks, voluntary reduction by food manufacturers and restaurants and some local bans, like New York City’s in 2007.
“Getting rid of artificial trans fat is one of the most important life-saving measures the FDA could take,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.
An FDA ban would focus on partially hydrogenated oils and would not affect the small amount of naturally occurring trans fat found in some meat and dairy products.
Includes reporting by News Food Editor Andrew Z. Galarneau.