This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.
In recent years, the public health community has agreed that consumers ought to eat as little trans fats as possible because consuming them increases a person’s risk of heart disease. That message has been repeatedly conveyed to consumers from many different sources: USDA, other Federal agencies, the New York City Board of Health, nutrition professionals, consumer advocacy groups, and the media. At the peak of the media coverage in 2006, trans fats were the focus of a number of reports on network evening news broadcasts. That same year, the Federal Government began requiring food labels to indicate grams of trans fats per serving.
For many years, food manufacturers had strong financial incentives to use trans fats in their products. Trans fats are formed when plant-based fats are hydrogenated. This process raises the melting point of plant-based fats, allowing them to be used in products such as margarines, snack foods, and baked goods in place of animal-based fats, like butter. The partially hydrogenated fats prolong shelf life, and they are cheaper than animal-based fats.
But negative health information about trans fats, as well as the labeling requirements, shifted the incentives for food manufacturers. My ERS colleagues and I wanted to see how manufacturers adapted to the new climate. We looked at the trans fat content of new (including reformulated) products introduced from 2005 to 2010 and found that food companies gradually reformulated their products by reducing and, in many cases, eliminating trans fats.
The five product categories with the highest trans fat contents were bakery products; prepared meals; desserts; processed fish, meat, and egg products; and snacks. We found that trans fat levels for new bakery products declined by 73 percent, from an average of 0.49 grams per serving in 2005 to 0.13 grams in 2010. New products in the other categories posted declines of around 50 percent over the period.
Some public health professionals worry that reformulated products with less trans fats may have higher levels of added sugar, saturated fat, or sodium. We didn’t find this to be the case. When we compared food products with and without trans fats, we found that new products without trans fats mostly contain less saturated fats, sodium, and calories. This suggests that food companies are generally substituting healthier ingredients for trans fats. Check out more of the findings in our report, New Food Choices Free of Trans Fats Better Align U.S. Diets With Health Recommendations.