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Artificial Trans Fats Unacceptable at Whole Foods Market Since 2003

Want to avoid artificial trans fats? Shopping with us makes it easy because Whole Foods Market removed these unhealthy fats from all the food products we sell back in 2003.

And ten years later, the Food and Drug Association finally came to the same conclusion, announcing their plans to banish trans fats from our food supply. Their announcement has rattled the manufacturers of the remaining vestiges of artificial trans-fat-containing food and snack products still on the market.

While you won’t find these products in our Whole Foods Market stores, they are in many other grocery and convenience stores as well as in restaurants throughout the country. Listed in ingredient labels as “partially hydrogenated oil” — the formal name for artificial trans fats, it can be found currently in many familiar items such as coffee creamers, canned frostings, microwave popcorn, chewy candies, cookies, crackers, and cakes.

We sometimes get questions about the qualifier “artificial” when we talk about trans fats. That’s because naturally occurring trans fats can be found in small quantities in meat and dairy products as the result of a natural process in which microbes in the stomachs of ruminant animals transform unsaturated fatty acids into trans fats. As the chemical structure and location of naturally occurring trans fat bonds in the molecule are different from that of artificial trans fats, it is generally considered that the naturally-occurring trans fats both metabolize in the body differently and are less harmful.

But the manufacture of artificially created trans-fats is not a new concept; it was first developed in 1905 as an inexpensive alternative to butter and lard, transforming liquid vegetable oils into fats that are more solid at room temperature by heating the oils under pressure while adding hydrogen gas. Manufacturers like these “partially hydrogenated fats” because they are inexpensive, emulate the consistency and “mouth-feel” of butter and lard, and make the product more resilient to rancidity, thus extending their product’s shelf life.

And, the development of non-animal-based hydrogenated fats to make margarine, along with the crackers, cookies, cakes and the like made from it, was also a big draw for vegans and many vegetarians. By popular demand, such items had been available since the early days of natural food stores, coops and restaurants.

Partially hydrogenated oils got another boost in the 1990s when informational campaigns touting the hazardous effects of saturated fats were in vogue, prompting many manufacturers to switch from butter, lard and tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil to using partially hydrogenated fats.

However, inklings that there was a shadow side of artificial trans fats began with news of research done in 1990 by Dutch scientists when they claimed these partially hydrogenated fats not only raised “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol but also reduced the otherwise protective “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol—something even saturated fat didn’t do. 

Complaints and concerns from industry trade groups, nutritionists and government agencies initiated numerous studies over the years to either refute or support these early results. By 2002, in their “Letter Report on Dietary Reference Intakes for Trans-Fatty Acids,” the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recommended that intake of artificial trans fats should be zero — a decision based on the undeniable relationship between trans fat intake and increased risk of coronary heart disease.

In the meantime, we at Whole Foods Market kept close watch on the issue. While the government was not making a definitive stand concerning artificial trans fats, we always seek to set our quality standards to err on the side of what’s best for our customers. So in early 2002 we made the decision to move forward with eliminating hydrogenated oil products from our stores by mid-2003.

The next 18 months was a flurry of work with manufacturers of margarine, shortening, cookies, crackers, ice cream, cakes, etc., encouraging them to develop non-hydrogenated oil replacement products so that our customers who wanted non-animal fat-based product still had plenty of options. The enthusiasm and partnership of our suppliers with us to take on the tough challenge to create good tasting alternatives was very much appreciated, not only by us at Whole Foods Market but ultimately by our customers, as well.

In fact, the elimination of artificial trans fats is emblematic of how we develop our quality standards at Whole Foods Market. Keeping current as much as possible as new information emerges, listening to our customers, working with our suppliers to create new products and alternative production methods that help support your well-being and our environment — it is all a part of our dedication to helping you make informed choices and providing you with the highest quality foods available.