The summer season in the United States results in lots of time spent outdoors and on-the-go, with no shortage of snack foods in tow. However, unlike the snacks from past decades and all other prepared foods on the market, today’s products likely lack the artificial trans fats known as partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). PHOs have been a subject of controversy and confusion among consumers for the past several decades since their commercialization in the mid-twentieth century. Let’s briefly examine their sudden rise in the marketplace followed by their dramatic decline, resulting in the current regulatory ban on PHOs.

An Initial Hit
Partially hydrogenated oils gained popularity in the early 1900s within the food industry as a replacement for animal-based fats. These semi-solid oils were found to be more shelf-stable than their liquid counterparts and cheaper to produce than animal-derived saturated fats such as butter, beef or lard. By the 1940s, PHOs experienced a significant growth in usage through the heavy marketing of products such as shortening, frying oils and margarine.

PHOs also received a stamp of approval from the medical community during this time. Being unsaturated by definition, they did not share the same heart-disease-causing stigma as their saturated counterparts. The fact that partially hydrogenated oils existed in small amounts, naturally in various food products, also helped their case as being the ideal replacement in recipes for other fats. Common products containing PHOs included baked goods, fried foods, refrigerated dough products, stick margarine, vegetable shortening, some snack products and coffee creamer.

Tides Turn
In the 1980s and 1990s, further research was conducted to better understand the various types of fats we consume and their effects on human health. Researchers honed in on fatty acid length as well as the degree and location of unsaturation within the fatty acid chain. This brought to light mounting evidence suggesting a link between eating foods made with PHOs and an increased risk of heart disease. A connection was observed between PHO consumption and increased “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, which is a marker for an increased risk of heart disease.

Agency Takes Action
In the U.S., the FDA first set its sights on controlling the amount of PHOs in food products during the 1990s, resulting in an announcement in 2003 of a regulation requiring food manufacturers to declare the amount of trans fat in their products on the Nutrition Facts label. This is significant because PHOs are typically the most common source of trans fat in a product. However, a caveat of the regulation allowed for a trans fat level of 0.5 grams per serving to be listed as 0 grams trans fat on the label. This could be problematic if a consumer ate multiple servings of a product in one day because the small amount of trans fat per serving would compound to a larger, significant amount. Furthermore, the FDA struggled to determine the recommended daily intake during this time, so it never approved the use of claims such as “trans fat-free” or “low in trans fat.” These components of the regulation undoubtedly confused consumers.

In November 2013, the FDA made a preliminary determination that PHOs are not “generally recognized as safe” for use in food products. When the final determination was released in June of 2015, the FDA cited that the decision was based on extensive research into the effects of PHOs as well as input from stakeholders received during the comment period. Furthering the offensive on PHOs, the FDA instituted a ban on the use of the harmful oils in food products effective June 18, 2018. However, the FDA is allowing various extensions of the compliance date for petitioned and non-petitions uses. Details surrounding these compliance deadlines can be found on the FDA website here. In 2017, Health Canada also announced a regulation banning PHOs in products, with an implementation date of September 15, 2018.

These new regulations place the responsibility on the food manufacturer to ensure that their ingredients and final products are PHO-free. Which ingredients in your supply chain are likely to contain PHOs? Verify with your suppliers that any margarine, frying oils and shortening are not made using PHOs. Further, if your supply chain includes processed ingredients, you may want to test any pastries, bread or fried foods, such as potato chips, to ensure that they are PHO-free.

Are you concerned about PHOs sneaking into your products? Monitor your supply chain today by partnering with Mérieux NutriSciences to conduct analytical testing. Our experts recently developed an innovative and exclusive testing method which can differentiate between artificial and naturally occurring trans fats. The test can detect as low as 0.2% partially hydrogenated oils as trans fatty acids to ensure compliance with the regulation and, ultimately, consumer safety. Contact us today to get started.


Meet the Author

Nick Price
Product Manager, Analytical Services, Mérieux NutriSciences

Nick has been with Mérieux NutriSciences for five years and is currently a Product Manager for Analytical Services. He focuses on the development of new testing services, with a primary focus on contaminant chemistry testing including drug residues, pesticides, dioxins and many other categories.

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