Health Risks of Trans-Fats and Why States are Banning Their Use

Susanna Sisson's picture
Trans-fats in hamburger

Nearly 30 years ago, as a chemistry student I was studying the dangers of trans-fats versus cis-fats. The difference, cis fats are naturally occurring and have health benefits, while trans-fats are man-made and have known adverse effects on heart and overall health. Eventually, there were government regulations placed on manufacturers who included trans-fats in their products but by then much of the damage had been done. Technically, the food industry helped create the obesity crisis and contributed to the rise in cardiovascular disease as well as diabetes.


Trans-fats are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils, changing their molecular structure and making the final product more solid. Hydrogenated oils such as margarine and Crisco, which were both staples in our household when I was growing up, are examples of products using trans-fats. In times of shortages such as the Great Depression and WWII, when commodities such as butter were scarce, the use of hydrogenated oils was a more feasible answer.

Popularity of Trans Fats
Trans-fat use became popular in the 50’s and 60’s as people were looking for convenience and lower cost. Products like donuts and baked goods could be easily mass produced and were less costly to manufacture using trans-fats rather than butter and the use drastically increased shelf life. For companies, the answer to a higher profit margin was using the least expensive, albeit artificial ingredient in products such as crackers, cakes, cookies, and other baked goods. As the fast food industry began to grow, the use of trans-fats skyrocketed and companies such as McDonald’s, used hydrogenated oils in cooking their French fries. As these companies bottom line grew so did the bottoms of Americans.

Legislation Against Trans Fats

As early as 2003 the FDA amended its regulations on food labeling to require that artificial trans fat be listed on the nutrition label of conventional foods and dietary supplements (68 FR 41434). The rule went into effect on January 1, 2006. (1) In fact, FDA labeling requirement reduced trans-fats by 58%.

By 2008, the American Medical Association (AMA) announced it had adopted a policy supporting legislation to ban the use of artificial trans fats in restaurants and bakeries in the United States (U.S.). (1)

States Move Against Trans Fats

In July 2008, New York City’s Board of Health required calorie information be available on restaurant menus.

As of September 30, 2008, California became the first state to enact statewide menu labeling legislation (Senate Bill 1420) requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations in the state to disclose calorie and nutrition information in a clear and conspicuous manner, such as a readily available brochure, commencing July 1, 2009, and after January 1, 2011, to post calorie content information for standard menu items directly on menus or menu boards or with food items in display cases, as applicable. Maine, Massachusetts and Oregon have enacted menu labeling legislation in 2009, and New Jersey and Tennessee enacted legislation in 2010. Other states such as Colorado followed with regulations to protect consumers.


New York cities and counties were among the first to start banning use of trans-fat in restaurants and fast-food outlets in 2006. Philadelphia followed in 2007. The state-wide California artificial trans fat ban began on January 1, 2010, prohibiting oil, shortening, or margarine containing specified trans-fats for specified purposes, from being stored, distributed, or served by, or used in the preparation of any food within, a food facility.

A comparative study by Dr. Eric Brandt, of the Yale University School of Medicine, and colleagues checked medical records to see if the New York ban made any real difference.

"New York City was the first large metropolitan area in the United States to restrict trans-fats in eateries," the researchers wrote in their report in the Journal of the American Medical Association's JAMA Cardiology.

The impact on cardiovascular health with regard to trans-fat usage was profound. Scientific and medical studies on trans-fats found the ingredient decreases high density lipoprotein (HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol) and increase low density lipoprotein (LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol) as well as triglycerides. It is now known these changes cause onset of an inflammatory process marked by increased C-reactive protein, interleukin 6, and tumor necrosis factor α, as well as cause damage to endothelial cells which eventually result in clot formation, narrowing of the arteries and potential heart attack and stroke. Cardiovascular disease is currently the leading cause of death worldwide.

Dr. Brandt found that three or more years after the restrictions were implemented, people living in these areas had significantly fewer hospitalizations for heart attack and stroke that those living in unrestricted areas. Their findings were based on trends in similarly urban areas where restrictions did not apply. The decline for the combined conditions was 6.2%.

Health Dangers of Trans Fats

Studies have shown that when people eat even small amounts of trans-fat, as little as 2 grams of trans-fat which is almost half that of an average order of French fries, or a sugar cookie which contains about 2 grams, they have a significantly higher risk of stroke, heart disease and sudden heart death. (2) A study at Harvard University found that people who ate the highest amounts of trans-fat had twice the heart-attack risk of those who consumed only a little.

In 2018, an FDA ban on partially hydrogenated oil in foods, which will nearly eliminate dietary trans-fat, takes effect nationwide, but with statistics and research indicating a major risk of heart attack and stroke for those consuming trans-fat, you may not want to wait. In fact, did you know that trans fats may make your irritable?

1. CDC
2. NBC