Removing trans fat from food turns out to be simpler than it appeared. That’s because the vast majority of trans fat in food is placed there intentionally in artificial ingredients that consist of pure trans fat. Prohibiting these ingredients, partially hydrogenated oil or PHO, is a simple administrative step and does not require any extra diligence or difficult adjustments at food factories, but it is sufficient to take away close to 99 percent of trans fat from food.
The FDA issued its final determination on PHO on June 15, 2015, and it goes into effect on June 15, 2018. As government rules go, this is an unusually simple one, indicating that PHO is not “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) and therefore cannot be used in food for humans sold in the United States. Exceptions are made when manufacturers do detailed safety studies that are accepted by FDA. The fine print in the rule is used to make sure that fully hydrogenated oil (FHO) is exempt from the rule while not allowing food factories to sneak PHO into our food by disguising it as FHO.
To food manufacturers, though, the more important rule is the one made by Health Canada, finalized last Friday and set to go into effect on September 15, 2018. On the surface, the Canadian rule is compatible with the U.S. rule, but there are two important differences. First, Canada is adding PHO to its list of food contaminants. Unlike the more roundabout FDA rule, this action directly makes it a crime to sell food containing PHO in Canada. Second, Health Canada is not allowing the long list of exceptions for small amounts of PHO that the FDA says it will allow in the United States. My expectation is that food manufacturers will follow the Canadian rule and stop using partially hydrogenated oil completely in order to be able to sell the same product across North America.
It is difficult to overstate the effect on health that removing trans fats will produce. Trans fats are clinically implicated in blood lipid problems, especially those related to cholesterol. These problems often develop into heart attack and stroke. Separately, trans fat is known to weaken cell walls. This reduces cellular functioning and is believed to reduce metabolism, cause generally poor health, and make a person susceptible to bruising, viral infections, and fungal infections. No one should be subject to this kind of ill health as a result of eating an artificial food ingredient that does not even add any useful quality to the food. The health effects of trans fat are not as severe as those of smoking, heavy metal exposure, or chronic dehydration, but are comparable in seriousness to the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Health will improve across North America as a result of this change.