May 16, 2018

WHO Trans Fat Q&A with the CIA’s Jennifer Stack

WHO REPLACE trans fat initiative q and a og image

The CIA talks with our own Jennifer Stack, RDN, CDE,  Associate Professor of Culinary Science at the CIA, for a Q&A about the World Health Organization’s (WHO) REPLACE Trans Fat Initiative.

What are trans fats and why are they used so frequently?

Trans fat is artificially created when we take a liquid oil like soybean or corn oil and put it through a process that adds hydrogen to its molecular structure. It’s used mostly in mass-produced processed foods, primarily because it is a useful and inexpensive solid fat that’s great for baked goods and frying. It also helps to extend the shelf life of products, especially baked goods. It’s used mostly in mass-produced processed foods. But what we started to understand, well over a decade ago, is that small change in that molecular chemical structure leads to big changes in what trans fats do to our bodies.

Trans fats have been essentially out of the U.S. food supply since the FDA declared it as “no longer recognized as safe.” What motivated the U.S. to respond and clean out trans fats?

I think it’s a number of things that moved the industry forward. First, the science started to become clear about the hazards. Then, talk got loud enough about regulating trans fats in the industry. The pressure of potential regulation and the implication that laws might be enacted encouraged companies to see the writing on the wall and get in front of the removal of trans fats from their products. And then, as research and potential regulations got talked about in the media, the consumer started to say, “Maybe I don’t want that in my food.” And once consumers put their dollars into products that were trans-fat free, the industry had to adapt.

What motivated the WHO’s call to eliminate trans fats from the global food supply?

The WHO’s initiative to get trans fats banned worldwide strongly reflects the idea that there is a link between what we eat and our health. This link is so well acknowledged that WHO is saying this type of processed fat should not be available in the worldwide food supply. Anyone who studies Type 2 diabetes and heart disease trends around the world, sees that cheap processed foods have worked their way into the food supply of cultures where they have never been before. The negative changes in the overall health of these populations are being tracked, and the evidence is clear.

Is WHO’s REPLACE challenge to rid the world of trans fats by 2023 doable?

In fact, the U.S. food supply is already cleaned up. However, change around the world is another matter and will happen if companies see the benefits. What we have to be vigilant about is the net effects of changing oils. For example, palm and coconut oils are viable options as alternatives. But if we need them in vast quantities going forward, we run the risk of deforestation of those trees, which leads to drought and starvation. So, the environmental impact of the ridding the world of trans fats by 2023 is a complex and layered issue and must be thoughtfully approached.

What do we teach our students about trans fat at the CIA?

We always began trans fat education in students’ first-semester Nutrition class. We used to have them learn about its effects and look at nutrition labels to identify the hidden trans fats. But over the years, what we teach has been shifting. As trans fat has been phased out of our food supply, it is more relevant to teach about it from a sustainability point of view in the Food Systems course, where we look at the environmental impact of replacing trans fat worldwide.

When you teach nutrition, food systems, and health, what are you focusing on today?

We’re talking about a plant-forward approach to eating and the science behind it. We teach it from a health-enhancing, environmentally sound, and importantly, a delicious point of view.