January 26, 2017
By: Janie Jacoby
Trans fats may be out, but what will replace them?
In 2015 the FDA declared that partially hydrogenated trans fats are not a safe food ingredient, and must be phased out by 2018. Food companies had already begun phasing out partially hydrogenated oils in many foods, due to decades of concern about its link to increased heart disease. The question remains, what will replace trans fats?
Dietitians everywhere breathed a sigh of relief that this harmful ingredient would finally be removed from our food supply. However, what we didn't realize is that the ingredients that are replacing partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) have their own set of concerns, from health effects to human rights. These replacements include palm oil and interesterified fats, as well as a new biotechnology technique, CRISPR, which is poised to bring new genetically-altered fats into the marketplace.
Palm oil is a common replacement for PHO because it has a similar texture and is shelf-stable. Its use has skyrocketed, and it is now found in about half of all packaged foods! However, as the Rainforest Action Network describes, palm oil production has a devastating impact in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Palm oil plantations are one of the worst perpetrators of forced labor, child labor, and human trafficking. The plantations lead to the destruction of the natural resources that people rely on for their livelihoods. In addition, habitat destruction is devastating for critically endangered animals such as orangutans.
As far as health goes, palm oil is not inherently harmful, like trans fats. Unrefined palm oil is even a source of antioxidants and nutrients such as vitamin E. However, palm oil is typically highly processed, fractionated, and often goes through a process called interesterification, which long-term effects are unknown.
Triglycerides are composed of a glycerol backbone with three fatty acids attached. These three fatty acids are not necessarily the same, some may be saturated, some unsaturated. Food manufacturers use enzymes or chemicals to rearrange these fatty acids among triglycerides to create a fat with the characteristics they need. Like partial hydrogenation, this process creates novel fat molecules which are not found naturally.
Research is scarce, but some studies suggest the possibility of negative health outcomes if these fats replace trans fat in the food supply. A 2014 review study reported that the fats can have negative impacts on lipoprotein metabolism, glucose and insulin metabolism, immune function, and liver enzymes. A 2016 review study found that the science does not currently show health issues, but that gaps in the research mean we do not know the short and long-term impact on metabolism, inflammation, and other factors.
As interesterified fats increase in our food supply, another source of new fats is emerging; researchers are using new gene-editing technology such as CRISPR to modify crops in a variety of ways, including by changing their fatty acid content.
CRISPR is a method of genetically modifying crops. This biotechnology is capable of snipping out genes, rather than inserting genes from another organism, as other GM crops are made. Because the method is so new, it is not regulated, and the crops are developed and grown without oversight.
Researchers have used gene-editing to create soybeans with higher levels of monounsaturated fats and lower levels of polyunsaturated fats. This makes them more stable and extends their shelf-life, just like the partial hydrogenation process.
Proponents say that this method is more precise than older GM methods, and more acceptable to consumers. Critics say that there are still unknown consequences, and that there need to be safety assessments and regulations in place. A governmental committee is currently investigating new biotechnologies and how they should be regulated. Read on for information about how to stay informed on this topic!
Healthy-Fat Plan of Action
Consider avoiding products that contain refined palm oil and check ingredient labels for signs of interesterified fats.
- Palm oil or palm kernel oil
- Fully hydrogenated oil
- Palm oil -or- fully hydrogenated oil, and another oil (such as soybean oil), listed together
- Monoglycerides, diglycerides
Sign up for updates about upcoming changes to biotech regulations, or submit your input to the regulatory committee here: http://nas-sites.org/biotech/
We still have a lot to learn about the impacts of these fats and food technologies and what is the best way to replace trans fat in the diet. When the science is uncertain, my personal philosophy is that prioritizing whole foods (and fats!) over processed ones is the healthiest choice.