TransFreeAmerica Campaign Launched
CSPI Aims to Reduce Heart Disease by Eliminating Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil from Food Supply
May 18, 2004
WASHINGTON—Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which cause thousands of heart-attack deaths each year, should be removed from the American food supply since safer alternatives are widely available, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The consumer group today formally petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prohibit the use of partially hydrogenated oil as a food ingredient and launched a major grassroots campaign to encourage food manufacturers to reformulate their products.
Although small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in beef and dairy products, the FDA estimates that 80 percent of the trans fat in Americans’ diets comes from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (PHVO). Treating vegetable oil with hydrogen gas results in a fat that is solid or semi-solid at room temperature and that has a long shelf life. In 2003, the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine concluded that the only safe level of trans fat in the diet is zero, and in 2004 an FDA advisory panel concluded the trans fat is even more harmful than saturated fat.
“When partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was first used in foods many decades ago, it was considered safe,” said Dr. Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Now that studies have demonstrated that partially hydrogenated oil is a major cause of heart disease, it should be phased out of the food supply as rapidly as possible and replaced with more-healthful oils.”
New rules requiring food processors to disclose trans fat content on Nutrition Facts labels take effect in 2006, and those rules are prompting some companies to reformulate products or add trans-free versions to their product lines. Frito Lay has removed partially hydrogenated oil from many of its snack foods; Campbell’s Pepperidge Farms unit is introducing trans-free Goldfish crackers and other foods; Kraft is removing trans from Triscuits and many other foods; and supermarket chain Whole Foods sells no products that contain partially hydrogenated oils. Even Crisco now sells a trans-free version of its shortening. Many companies have done nothing, however.
“Unlike fats that occur in nature, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is totally artificial and absolutely unnecessary in the food supply,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Food-processing companies should worry less about the shelf life of their products and more about the shelf life of their customers. Getting rid of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is probably the single easiest, fastest, cheapest way to save tens of thousands of lives each year.”
The new labeling rules would not help consumers avoid trans fat in restaurant foods. Pies, scones, cinnamon rolls, and other sweets are often high in trans fat. Moreover, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Applebee’s, Red Lobster, and countless other chains deep-fry in partially hydrogenated shortening. Only a few chains, like Ruby Tuesday and Legal Sea Foods, now deep-fry in trans-free liquid vegetable oil.
“We, along with numerous medical experts and nutritionists, believe that trans fats are a major contributor to heart disease, and we support efforts to raise awareness of their health risks,” Ruby Tuesday said in a written statement. Ruby Tuesday is also currently the only restaurant chain that provides nutrition information on its menus for all items.
McDonald’s announced in 2002 that it would switch to a healthier (though not entirely trans-free) cooking oil, but the chain has never followed through on its promise, according to CSPI. Accordingly, CSPI is urging visitors to www.TransFreeAmerica.org to contact McDonald’s USA president Mike Roberts and urge McDonald’s to deep-fry in safer oil. Future grassroots actions will target more fast-food chains, processed food manufacturers, supermarket chains, and key government decision makers.
The 37-page petition CSPI filed with the FDA would prohibit the food industry from using partially hydrogenated oils. Based on FDA data, CSPI estimates that 11,000 to 30,000 lives, perhaps many more, would be saved each year if those oils were removed from the food supply. The economic benefit over 20 years would be about $1 trillion. The FDA had concluded that requiring trans-fat labeling alone would save between 240 and 480 lives each year.
In Denmark, food companies are required to limit artificially created trans fats to two percent of the total amount of fat in the food. Consequently, McDonald’s and Burger King fry in trans-free cooking oil there.
CSPI’s legal filing and lists of foods with and without hydrogenated oils can be found at www.TransFreeAmerica.org.