Dietary Trans Fats: Good or Bad?

Dietary Trans Fats: Good or Bad?

You may have read or heard about the World Health Organization’s (WHO) call for a total ban globally on artificially produced trans fats by 2023. Dietary trans fats are associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease mortality and events.

An article in the February 2022 medical journal Circulation says “deaths attributable to diseases of the heart in the United States increased steadily in the 1900s to 1980s and declined into the 2010s.” Specifically, the number dropped from 239 per 100,000 to 214 per 100,000 in 2019. Why did this decrease occur in the United States? 

The general consensus is that more effective medications to control cholesterol and other heart-related issues, including surgical procedures such as coronary artery bypass, angioplasty and stents, played a part. But a major factor is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) mandatory reduction in trans fats. 

Foods that were once high in trans fats include baked goods such as pies and pie crusts, margarine sticks, shortening, cake mixes and frosting, pancakes and waffles. Even special ice cream flavors can contain up to half of 1 gram of trans fats per serving. Part of being a responsible consumer is educating yourself and reading labels. You can find trans fats on labels by looking for ingredients called “partially hydrogenated oils.” 

Several colleagues of mine from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health wrote an article in the June 24, 1999, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, “Trans Fatty Acids and Coronary Heart Disease.” The article showed that these trans fats increased LDL (bad) cholesterol, decreased HDL (good) cholesterol, and highly increased the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Despite its prominence in the scientific literature, it did not seem to get through to the consumer. 

But that all changed when my friend and patient, Steve Reinemund, former CEO of PepsiCo Inc., visited me in my office in October 2002. He was concerned about the major problem of increasing obesity reflected in our American youth and thought that PepsiCo products, particularly Frito-Lay chips, might be part of the problem. Knowing the harmful and well-known effects of saturated fats, he believed the company should eliminate, or at least reduce, the saturated fats in their products. I said that a small amount of saturated fat can be tolerated but trans fats must be eliminated. As a result of our meeting, Frito-Lay spent millions of dollars to retool and accomplish that goal. Surprisingly, there would not be an increase in the price of their products, and I call that corporate integrity. 

Several times, I spoke to the top executives at Frito-Lay, sharing with them not only the importance of this essential move but also that I thought it could save thousands of lives annually and hopefully inspire a national movement—which is exactly what happened. 

In 2006, the FDA started the process of banning partially hydrogenated oils, and trans fats were officially added to the Nutrition Food Label. In 2015, the FDA finalized the ban on partially hydrogenated oils in most processed foods. In 2007, New York City was the first major city to ban trans fats, with other counties in New York following suit. Multiple studies since then, such as one in New York, estimated there were 40,200 fewer deaths in one year following the statewide ban of trans fats. In New York counties banning trans fats, hospitals saw a 6.2% decrease in heart attacks and strokes and a 4.5% reduction in heart disease deaths. If these numbers are applied nationwide, we are likely seeing approximately 200,000 lives saved annually. 

If you aren’t already doing so, begin reading the Nutrition Facts labels on your foods, like the example on this page.  

Notice the chart shows 0 grams of trans fats in the product. That means it has met the standard the FDA allows; that is, if it contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats, it can be considered 0 grams of trans fats. Theoretically, that is very good—but keep in mind if you eat large amounts of that product, you still could be consuming too many trans fats in your diet, thus increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke.

The fast food industry also quickly responded to the FDA requirements—all except McDonald’s. Back then, their French fries were very high in trans fats. Initially, McDonald’s resisted eliminating trans fats, fearing it would adversely affect the taste. But they were able to resolve the problem in 2008 by switching to non-trans-fat cooking oils. This was probably the largest reduction in trans fats ever, due to McDonald’s expansive footprint.

Did this investment in global health adversely affect the value of PepsiCo stock (Frito-Lay is the largest contributor to their portfolio)? No, it was just the reverse. In 2000, PepsiCo stock was slightly under $20 dollars per share; as of February 2023, it was $176 dollars per share. 

I want to give Steve Reinemund, PepsiCo’s former CEO—and also a great friend, patient and member of The Cooper Institute Board of Trustees—recognition for leading this national and international movement that has affected millions of people all over the world for the better. Taking care of yourself includes taking responsibility for your health and making healthy food choices most of the time, including educating yourself with the power to avoid trans fats. 

Again, read the nutrition label and ingredients on everything you buy to see if a product has trans fats. Be an educated consumer! Remember that in 1 Corinthians 6:20 it says, “for God bought you with a high price.” So, you must honor God with your body. ©2023 Kenneth H. Cooper 

The Scripture quotation is taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois.

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