PUBLIC HEALTH
June 23, 2015

FDA Bans Trans Fats

The FDA has banned partially hydrogenated oils starting in 2018. What to look for until then.

It's a victory for consumer groups who have fought for years to have trans fats removed from the food supply. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that these artery- and memory-cloggers are not safe for human consumption and given food manufacturers until 2018 to remove them from their products.

A Man-Made Fat Created For Manufactured Food

A little over 100 years ago, a chemist figured out that liquid oils could be treated with hydrogen gas and they would become semi-solid or solid. Because this was a cheaper source of fat than lard, butter, or beef tallow, food manufacturers embraced these partially hydrogenated oils, which created trans fats, and Crisco shortening was born, followed by margarine and other uses for the pseudo fat in food products.

The offending fats are still found in popular foods like frozen pizza, margarines, coffee creamers, microwave popcorn, and baked goods such as cakes, cookies, and pie crusts.

For many years trans fats were considered to be safe and even healthier than animal fats, but some experts began to have doubts in the 1970s and 1980s. Over time, research showed that the man-made fat raised levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowered levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, but it has taken scientists nearly 50 years to accumulate the clear-cut evidence that these fats are actually harmful and cause heart disease.

In 2013 the FDA decided that trans fats were not “Generally Recognized As Safe,” or GRAS, after all. They began taking public comments before finalizing their decision this month to have them removed from all food products within three years. The move gives food manufacturers time to reformulate their products and take out the trans fats.

“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's Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, MD, said in a statement. “This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”

Tighter Restrictions, But Still Around

Since 2006, the amount of trans fat in a product has been required on the Nutrition Facts panel of food packages. Between 2003 and 2012 the consumption of trans fats has gone down about 78 percent, and the FDA credits the labeling rule and food manufacturer’s reformulation of their products with that decline.

The hydrogenated fats can still be found, however, in popular foods like frozen pizza, margarines, coffee creamers, microwave popcorn, and baked goods such as cakes, cookies, and pie crusts.

Food companies can petition the FDA to allow the use of partially hydrogenated oils in certain foods after 2018, a move that will prove very difficult since companies would have to demonstrate that such oils are safe to eat. In light of the vast research that shows otherwise, it is unlikely that approval will be granted.

This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.

The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010), jointly published every five years by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Health and Human Services, warns, “Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats.” It seems likely that the next set of Guidelines will be even stronger.

What You Can Do

Check the ingredient listing on food packages for partially hydrogenated oils. According to current regulations, if a food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, it can be labeled as having 0 grams of trans fat, but the words “partially hydrogenated” are a dead giveaway that they are present.

For more information, visit the FDA’s website.

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