The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday issued a ruling that effectively bans trans fats from the nation’s food supply, transforming processed foods in America.
The FDA’s final ruling revokes the “generally recognized as safe” classification for partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the main source of trans fats in processed foods. Instead, trans fats are designated as food additives, which must have FDA authorization to be used in food.
“The FDA’s action on this major source of artificial trans fat demonstrates the agency’s commitment to the heart health of all Americans,” FDA Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, M.D., said in a statement. “This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”
Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Heart Association (AHA) CEO Nancy Brown said taking trans fats out of the food supply could prevent 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and up to 7,000 heart-related deaths a year.
“The American Heart Association joins the public health community today in celebrating what is truly a historic victory for the nation’s health,” Brown said. “In doing so, the agency has taken a firm step to protect the heart health of this country.”
Partially hydrogenated oils are a major source of trans fats. These oils are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower the good (HDL) ones. Eating trans fats increases the risk of developing heart disease and some studies have found that it is associated with increased risk of stroke and Type 2 diabetes, according to the AHA.
The FDA has set a compliance period of three years. This will allow companies to reformulate their products or petition the FDA to permit specific uses of PHOs. After the compliance period, no PHOs can be added to human food unless approved by the FDA.
Critics of trans fats, including the AHA, have worked to reduce and eliminate partially hydrogenated oil since the early 1990s. The efforts have reduced trans fat consumption, but experts say that people are still getting too much.
“If you go through the aisle of the grocery store you will see that in every product category there are companies that have successfully made this transition already,” said Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “The real question is, why are there companies lagging behind?”
Trans fats can be found in many foods, including fried foods like doughnuts, and baked goods including cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, frozen pizza, cookies, crackers, and stick margarines and other spreads. It’s spelled out on the food’s Nutrition Facts panel.
Although labels have helped, O’Hara said a ban is necessary.
“Labeling is not enough because there are still companies that continue to use partially hydrogenated oil,” he said. “It’s time we have a level playing field in the food industry.”
The FDA said that the food industry could seek approval through food additive petitions for minor uses of PHOs, such as encapsulating colors or flavors.
“What’s important is that it will allow the FDA take a look and ensure that cumulative use doesn’t increase risk of cardiovascular disease to the population,” O’Hara said.
Critics of the expected ruling point out that product reformulation and development of alternatives have already helped cut back on trans fats.
“Trans fats that are not naturally occurring have been drastically reduced in the food supply,” said Roger Lowe, executive vice president of strategic communications for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “Since 2003, food manufacturers have voluntarily lowered the amounts of trans fats in their food products by more than 86 percent, and these reduction efforts are continuing.”
The National Restaurant Association said banning minor uses of trans fats doesn’t reflect how other countries, such as Canada, have interpreted the science. The organization said this could lead to consumer and industry confusion.
“Our members have been aggressively removing and replacing PHOs in food items like cooking oil, whipped toppings and baked goods over the past decade,” spokesperson Christin Fernandez said.
“The industry may interpret that to mean foods that contain trace amounts of trans fats are unsafe and the evidence of minimal consumption is just not there.”
Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University and chair of the AHA’s nutrition committee, said that there’s no evidence that minimal consumption is safe. Having lots of foods with a little trans fat could lead to problems, she said.
“A key concern is that many consumers may eat more than one serving of a food with minimal amounts of trans fat and that could add up to a significant amount,” Kris-Etherton said.
Experts cautioned that consumers still need to look at the labels.
“With removal of partially hydrogenated oils, many foods will be higher in saturated fat because a solid fat is needed by the food industry for functional purposes,” said Kris-Etherton. “Consumers need to pay attention to the Nutrition Facts label and select foods that are lower in saturated fat.”
Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., whose work developing science-based policies has influenced food decisions from food companies to school lunch lines, said consumers still need to pay attention to their overall healthy diet.
“Consume calories in amounts that will achieve or maintain a healthy body weight,” said Lichtenstein, who is the Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, director and senior scientist at the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston and a long-time AHA volunteer. “Eat a diet that’s rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low and nonfat dairy products, fish, vegetable oils, nuts and lean meat such as skinless chicken — and be physically active each day.”