The FDA moves to ban trans fats
The Food and Drug Administration’s decision to stop recognizing partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) as safe is a step in the right direction, but is far from a ban on trans fats.
In early November, the FDA proposed removing PHOs, which are the primary source of industrially produced trans fats, from its list of food additives that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Additives on the list are not subject to premarket review and approval by the FDA.
The FDA holds that additives on the GRAS list are adequately proven to be safe by qualified scientific experts. But while an overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that even trace amounts of PHOs can be harmful to human health, the ingredients were still placed on the GRAS list. Companies were not even required to list trans fat on nutrition labels until 2006.
The most recent step by the FDA to change the classification of PHOs is not necessarily a ban. Rather, it means the burden will now be on the food manufacturers to prove that their products are safe for consumption. If companies can succeed in proving to the FDA that their trans-fat infused foods are safe, then those products will continue to be sold.
“If the ban on trans fats succeeds and these fats are no longer GRAS, the onus will be on the manufacturers to prove the safety of trans fats to gain pre-market approval from the FDA before they can become additives,” said Sheila Tucker, administrative dietitian and auxiliary services nutritionist of the office of health promotion.
Receiving pre-market approval for additives in products like microwave popcorn or frozen pizzas is not as challenging to as it may seem. In fact, there are currently more than 3,000 different food additives regulated by the FDA. While the loss of the GRAS classification would be a speed bump for trans fats, it is not a roadblock.
Researchers have spent decades examining the effects of trans fat on the body. Trans fat raises “bad” cholesterol, while lowering “good” cholesterol, which can lead to a greater risk of heart disease. Trans fat has also been shown to elevate triglyceride levels, which are linked to type 2 diabetes.
“Trans fats are fats that started out as a ‘good’ oil, but then are industrially altered to become harder at room temperature through a process called hydrogenation that can help the manufactured food have a longer shelf life or an altered texture that is desired” Tucker said. “As a result of these changes, the fat slips down a slippery slope and become a version that goes from ‘good’ to ‘bad.’”
The FDA said that the current proposal could prevent as many as 20,000 heart attacks and deaths from heart disease a year—assuming there is a significant drop in the number of trans fats in the food supply. Nutritionists agree the risk of disease that trans fats pose is very real.
“A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine way back in 2006 warned us that a two-percent increase in calories from trans fat translated into a 23-percent increase in the risk of coronary heart disease,” Tucker said.
New York City partially banned trans fats in 2007 by telling restaurants to remove artificial trans fats from their foods by summer 2008. However, foods there can still contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
“If the amount of trans fats in a product is under 0.5 grams in a serving, the manufacturer is permitted to list the amount present as zero—which is inaccurate for some foods,” Tucker said. “A few 0.5 gram servings easily add up.”
Four commercial bakery cookies, which can legally be listed as having 0 grams of trans fat, would cause someone to reach the recommended limit for trans fat, said Tucker.
Much like the FDA proposal, New York’s reduction in trans fats is the first step in a long process, however. The city has seen some success, following the trans fat legislation. A 2012 study by city health officials found that the average trans fat content in a customer’s meal was reduced by 2.5 grams, following the new regulations.
The FDA opened a 60-day comment period to collect input on the decision to stop classifying trans fat as GRAS. Pending the review of those comments, partially hydrogenated oils will officially be removed from the list.
“We can’t give a timeline,” FDA spokesperson Shelly Burgess said. “The commentary is open; and, once the commentary closes, we will review the comments and make a determination after that. But we can’t give a timeframe for when that final determination would come.”
Trans fats are present in some margarines, cake mixes, fried foods, frozen dinners and snacks. However, increasing consumer awareness has led some companies to reduce or replace trans fats in their products.
“This idea is not a new one,” Tucker said. “Denmark banned trans fats and was ahead of the curve.”
Iceland and Switzerland both banned trans fats as well.
Prior to the FDA taking a firmer stance on artificial trans fats, many companies took voluntary steps to reduce them. In fact, McDonald’s stopped cooking its French fries in trans fat when the FDA started requiring more clear labeling more than 10 years ago.
Closer to home, Wegmans has been removing trans fats from their products since 1991—beginning with a shift from partially hydrogenated soybean oil to liquid soybean oil.
“Wegmans agrees that these artificially produced fats can increase the risk of heart disease,” the company said in a statement. “However, FDA must also consider unintended consequences. That is, they must be confident that the fats chosen to replace partially hydrogenated oils are no worse for health.”
When the FDA started requiring food manufacturers to disclose trans fat on food labels, companies started switching oils. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, companies have reduced the amount of trans fat in their food products by more than 73 percent since 2005.
Some products, however, are easier to reformulate than others. Certain products like fish sticks or pies are often infused with trans fat to increase their shelf life. The cost of replacing those PHOs with other ingredients is unknown.
The FDA’s most recent determination will not affect trans fat that occurs naturally in certain meats and dairy products. A 2010 study published by PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed journal, found the effects of artificial trans fats and natural trans fats on humans were about the same.
To put the natural trans fat issue into perspective, information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that one pound of ground beef has more than 8 grams of trans fat.
When asked if the FDA planned to take steps to target natural trans fats as well, Burgess said, “No, because it’s not a food ingredient in those foods.”
The good news is that overall trans fat intake has declined among American consumers. In fact, the average American consumes approximately one gram of trans fat per day, compared with 4.6 grams in 2003. Overall, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that blood levels of trans fatty acids declined 58-percent among white adults from 2000 to 2009.
While the FDA still has a long way to go, any progress in reducing American consumption of trans fat is good news.
Stephen Adams is a sophomore journalism major who hopes Dunkin tastes as good without trans fat. Email him at sadams[at]ithaca.edu.