This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) moved to ban the use of partially hydrogenated oils, the main dietary source of artificial trans fats, after determining they are not safe to use in food. This move is hardly surprising, given that in November of 2013, the FDA made this preliminary determination. The announcement likely means an increased amount of palm oil, a trans fat-free vegetable oil, in the American diet — and an opportunity for companies to source only palm oil that is deforestation and peat-free.
Trans fats in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils
Trans fats can be formed by chemically modifying vegetable oils such as soybean oil. By adding hydrogen atoms, one can cause some oils to solidify into a texture similar to that of many oils high in saturated fats, making them useful in a wide variety of food applications. This process was first discovered at the turn of the 20th century but gained wider use during World War II, as rationing cut into butter supplies. While naturally occurring trans fats can be found in small amounts in some animal products, the majority of trans fats in diets come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
However, numerous studies point to a link between these trans fats and heart disease. The FDA initially proposed mandatory labeling of trans fats on packaging labels in 1999, which was later enacted in 2006. Requiring these labels not only allowed consumers to make their own decisions about their trans fat intake, it also pushed the industry to move away from trans fats in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils before it became a requirement.
Some places in the U.S. took further steps: In 2006, New York City banned trans fatty acids in restaurant food and California restricted the use of trans fats statewide. The next step came a year and half ago with the preliminary announcement that partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were no longer generally recognized as safe, meaning that partially hydrogenated vegetable oils would need additional approval before being added to foods. And on Tuesday, the FDA took the final step by banning the use of trans fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Palm oil steps up to the plate
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As companies have begun to reduce their reliance on partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, palm oil has become a preferred replacement oil for food manufacturers because, unlike most vegetable oils, it is solid at room temperature due to its high degree of saturation (which also has implications for health).
Palm oil imports in the United States already grew dramatically since the early 2000s when many companies began restricting use of trans fats and thus partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Thus, although American consumers have already likely experienced an increase in palm oil consumption, this new FDA announcement makes it likely that Americans will have soon even more palm oil in their diet.
This announcement is an opportunity for palm oil, and even more, an opportunity for deforestation-free palm oil. Consumers, investors and NGOs around the world have increasingly demanded that the ubiquitous oil – found in an estimated 50 percent of all packaged goods, from cosmetics to candy — is sourced sustainably, free from the destruction of tropical forests and carbon-rich peatlands.
As companies continue to use palm oil to fill the gap left by the removal of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, an increase in demand for palm oil should in fact be an increase in demand for only deforestation-free palm oil. Let’s use this new ban on trans fats in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to not only improve the heart health of Americans, but to save tropical forests around the world.
A version of this post first appeared on UCS’ Equation blog on June 16, 2015.