PHO Who?

By Carla Schuit   – Registered Dietitian

Lately there has been a lot in the news about PHO’s (partially hydrogenated oils) and Trans fats.  The FDA changed the face of the food industry last week by announcing that they are removing PHOs from their list of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) ingredients and therefore prohibiting their use in food. if food companies want to continue to use PHOs they need to apply for an exemption with the FDA and the ingredient will be regulated as a food additive. Meaning, if food companies provide enough evidence and support to the FDA then they can rule that PHOs will be allowed in food for that specific use. So what does this mean? Why are they doing this? What are PHOs? Why should you care?

PHOs are oils, typically soybean and/or cottonseed, which have been partially hydrogenated by adding hydrogen molecules to a liquid to make it more solid at room temperature. They are stable and versatile, used to create a desired taste and texture in all kinds of food products. However, they also increase heart attacks and other cardiovascular events seven times more than other fats. It is this reason that the FDA took action to ban the ingredient from foods. They could no longer consider PHOs safe to consume and we currently consume them in great amounts. Think of all the products in the grocery store. Margarine, crackers, ice cream, dressings, sauces, baked goods, etc… almost all shelf stable products on the aisles of the grocery store contain PHOs in one form or another. You can identify these items by looking at the ingredient statement on packaging as well as the  Trans Fat content on the nutrition facts panel.

So Trans Fat bad, yes, but fats play an important part in food and recipes. If you take out trans fat what do you replace it with? This is what food companies are currently struggling with and they seem to have two primary options. One being palm and/or palm kernel oil and the other being animal fats, more commonly called ….lard.

Palm and palm kernel oil is oil expressed from the fruit or seed (kernel) of palm plants. These are primarily grown in Southeast Asia. It is a saturated fat similar to coconut oil. Palm kernel oil also is a source of carotenoids giving it a reddish color. These are successful in helping food companies achieve the same if not very similar end product they did when using PHOs. However, palm/palm kernel oil has a sustainable downside. Farmers have to clear large areas of rainforests to make room for palm plantation. Displacing wildlife and changing the ecosystem. Companies are aware of this and working with group such as RFPO to make a sustainable system of harvesting.
Lard or animals fat. This is another saturated fat that companies are beginning to replace PHOs with. Animal fats typically do not translate well with most consumers so food companies are favoring plant options as much as possible.

The main reason food companies began using PHOs was because consumers were shying away from saturated fats. Recent research has shown that the consumption of saturated fat isn’t as harmful as once thought and trans fats are doing more harm than good.

So what does this mean for you? It means that products will contain much more saturated fat. If you already have a diet high in processed meats, red meats  and other animal products this will only add to your saturated fat intake during the day. Although saturated fat isn’t as bad as we once thought it does still accumulate in your body and you should consider this when making food choices.

It also means that products are going to have shorter shelf lives. If you are used to purchasing items and having them around for months this will no longer be an option. More items may need to be refrigerated to prevent fat rancidity. You may also see product prices go up because these ingredients are more expensive. It will be up to the food companies to figure this out for you.

Your best bet in this is to stick to your whole foods diet and avoid packaged and processed foods as much as possible. I know this article is a little more technical than usual but I thought it was good information. As your reward for sticking it out see the tasty avocado chocolate pudding recipe below!



1 large ripe avocado

1 tbsp cocoa powder

½ tbsp honey ( or maple syrup)
Mix and mash!! Serve cold. You can change the amounts of cocoa and honey depending on how rich and chocolaty you like it. I also like to add a little cinnamon for something extra!

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