We have all heard of the negative health consequences that come with consuming trans-fats from foods. Trans fats are especially bad for your heart, as they cause arteries to clog, raise your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and lower your “good” (HDL) cholesterol. Trans fat, also known as trans-fatty acids, are actually considered to be the worst kind of fat by most doctors as they greatly contribute to the risk of heart disease, a leading killer of men and women.
What exactly is trans fat? Trans-fat is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation, making oil less likely to spoil. This process helps manufactured foods stay fresher longer, have a longer shelf life and have an overall less greasy feel (ironically). Trans fats can also be labeled as “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oil! Look out for that ingredient on food packages.
Recently, food manufacturers have been under pressure to reduce the amount of trans fats used in foods because of serious health concerns. In the past few years, the United States and many other countries have required food manufacturers to label trans fat content on the nutrition labels. That being said, in the United States, foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fats are allowed to be labeled as 0 grams of trans fat. While 0.5 grams seems like a small amount, if you finish that entire bag of chips, you’re likely to have consumed and exceeded the recommended limit of trans fats. The American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fats to less than 1% of your total daily calories. For example, if the average person consumes 2,000 calories a day, no more than 20 calories should comes from trans fats, or, less than 2 grams of trans fats a day. Since we probably consume naturally occurring trans fats every day ( burgers, fries.. ) we should be consuming ZERO industrially manufactured trans fats.
So, where does Biotechnology come into all of this? Recently, a federal push has been made to eliminate the use of trans fats. This is great for public health but also for genetically modified crops developers, who have been wildly unpopular in the news lately. Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer are two genetically modified crop developers. I spoke about Monsanto in an earlier post regarding genetically modified foods in Africa. These two developers have modified the genes of a soybean to adjust its composition to make a longer-lasting, imaginably healthier oil and bean, free of trans fats.
With all the skeptics out there on genetically modified crops, it may be hard to convince food companies and restaurants to use this new oil, which is why for now, there is a limited quantity. However, because of the new proposal by the Food and Drug Administration to work towards eradicating trans fats from our daily menu, this product may have an easier time being accepted into society. The reduction of trans fats could prevent up to an additional 20,000 heart attacks each year and 7,000 deaths from heart disease, not to mention the billions of dollars in medical and economic costs a year. In recent years, there have been many food manufacturers who have voluntarily decreased trans fat levels in their products. This, in addition to public education, and the process of labeling trans fat content on food packages, the consumption of trans fat in American diets has decreased from an average of 4.6 grams a day in 2003, to 1 gram a day in 2012.
However, this is still not enough. What the FDA proposed is to consider trans fat a “food additive” and therefore trans fats would not be used in foods unless authorized by regulation ( this does not include the trans fats that occur naturally in meats and cheese). It would also eliminate the ability for manufacturers to label their foods as “0” grams when they really contains “0.5” grams. The problem is, what will food manufacturers use to replace the partially hydrogenated oils?
The new beans could definitely help the biotechnology industry to be associated with a better name. This genetically modified bean is the first product to directly benefit consumers before farmers. Until now, most genetically engineered crops were aimed at helping farmers eliminate the use of pesticides, get rid of weeds and control insects and diseases. The United Soybean Board has put $60 million into the R&D of the new beans. The money will also go towards marketing the new product.
Some are still very skeptical. A representative from the country’s biggest food company said that since many companies have already removed trans fat from 90% of their products by using conventionally bred high - oleic canola oil, why would they want to switch to this genetically engineered oil? However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has long been opposed to trans fat but not against genetic engineering, stated that the oils could be a potentially excellent substitute for hydrogenated oils.
Only time will tell if this new oil will be incorporated into daily use. Even if this particular oil doesn’t take hold as the companies hope, the developers have now started a trend to produce products for consumers, instead of farmers. In fact, Monsanto is now working on a way to produce a genetically engineered soybean with high levels of omega-3s, like those in salmon which are great for heart health, to be used instead of conventional oils.