Sullied Spices and Transitioning Out of Trans Fats for Good


By Tanya Silverman

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Two recent headline-grabbing Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announcements have cast a needed spotlight on the efforts and jurisdiction of an otherwise overlooked regulatory agency. First, that 12 percent of imported spices are contaminated. Second, that the FDA intends to ban trans fats from the national diet.

As far as the spice report, the FDA finding stated that 12 percent of imported spices were found to contain items like rodent hairs, insects and insect parts, and that 7 percent were contaminated with salmonella. The report brought up that most American spices are imported, and that most of the contaminated spices originated from India and Mexico.

“This is an old problem,” says Jonathan Emord, a lawyer who practices food and drug law. “Imports from Mexico, India, and China have had problems with contamination of salmonella and the presence of impurities resulting from rodent infestation, bug infestation, even human fecal matter, and E. Coli.”

Emord argues that executing an overarching condemnation of domestic spice importers is not the answer, as it is unfair to subject the entire industry to accusations and implement new standards where “they must spend more money or resources to do different types of testing.” He believes a better strategy would be to increase “consumer pressure and public awareness.” If individual buyers and importers are more apt to not buy products from places like Mexico and India (and make a point of it), such action will cause exporters to take notice and adhere to higher sanitation standards.

Artificial trans fats – also known as partially hydrogenated oils, additives put into foods to increase flavor stability and prolong shelf life – have been subject to the FDA’s attention because they decrease what is considered to be good cholesterol and increase bad cholesterol, which puts people at risk for heart disease. Emord points out, however, that although the FDA just announced that they plan to eliminate artificial trans fats, the substance is something that manufacturers have been phasing out over the past two decades.

“Right now, it’s only a minority of the products from 20 years ago that continue to have trans fats in them,” Emord says.

American trans fats consumption has certainly decreased — even McDonalds stopped using them in 2008. Some of the processed products that still contain trans fat as a component, though, include margarines, frostings, coffee creamers, frozen pizzas, cakes, and pies.

The FDA says that it will eventually give manufacturers a timeline to figure out how to replace artificial trans fats in their products – but will eliminating them from these foods make Americans healthier?

Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the co-author of The Calendar Diet: A Month By Month Guide to Losing Weight While Living Your Life offers her nutritionist insight on trans fat consumption to BTR.

Ansel agrees with the overwhelming scientific evidence that states there are no health benefits to trans fats. In terms of what their prospective replacements will be if and when they are ultimately phased out, Ansel advises American consumers to be wary of certain ingredients that can still be harmful to their health.

“Coconut oil and palm oil are sometimes used in place of trans fats, but they aren’t much healthier. Consumers need to know that these are still high in saturated fat which we still want to avoid because it raises cholesterol levels in our blood which can lead to heart disease,” she tells BTR.

Ansel adds that noting the saturated fat content is a smart idea when examining the ingredient list and nutritional information of a food.

Though the FDA seeks to eliminate artificial trans fats, there are still naturally occurring trans fats in other foods that would not be subject to such a regulation.

“The number of naturally occurring trans fats in our foods is much smaller than the number of artificial partially hydrogenated fats,” explains Ansel. “That said, foods like red meat, full fat milk, and cheese are high in saturated fat which we know increases blood cholesterol levels and can lead to heart disease so we should still limit these in favor of foods with healthier fats.”

She explains that the healthiest fats are “monounsaturated fats” which are found in “avocados, olives, olive oil, and nuts.” Omega-3 fatty acids are also beneficial, “which we can get from fatty fish and in lesser amounts from chia seed, flax seed, walnuts, and canola oil.”

When asked to comment about the particular foods that contain high amounts of artificial trans fats, she suggests for consumers to consider components holistically, as “most foods high in artificial trans fats usually travel with other ingredients that are also a concern health-wise such as sugar, salt, and saturated fats. Avoiding most other foods high in artificial trans fats such as donuts, frosting, and creamers is a smart move as these are unhealthy for lots or reasons.”

In light of all the regulations that have been proposed (or already exist), for consumers who wish to be healthy, safe consumers, a great deal still depends on personal education and individual action.