WASHINGTON (AP) — Heart-clogging trans fats were once a staple of the
American diet, plentiful in baked goods, microwave popcorn and fried foods.
Now, mindful of the health risks, the Food and Drug Administration is
getting rid of what's left of them for good.
Condemning artificial trans fats as a threat to public health, the FDA
announced Thursday it will require the food industry to phase them out.
Manufacturers already have eliminated many trans fats, responding to
criticism from the medical community and to local laws, Even so, the FDA
said getting rid of the rest — the average American still eats around a gram
of trans fat a day — could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths
It won't happen right away. The agency will collect comments for two months
before determining a phase-out timetable. Different foods may have different
schedules, depending how easy it is to find substitutes.
"We want to do it in a way that doesn't unduly disrupt markets," said
Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods. Still, he says, the
food "industry has demonstrated that it is, by and large, feasible to do."
Indeed, so much already has changed that most people won't notice much
difference, if any, in food they get at groceries or restaurants.
Scientists say there are no health benefits to trans fats. And they can
raise levels of "bad" cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease, the
leading cause of death in the United States. Trans fats are widely
considered the worst kind for your heart, even worse than saturated fats,
which also can contribute to heart disease.
Trans fats are used both in processed food and in restaurants, often to
improve the texture, shelf life or flavor of foods. Though they have been
removed from many items, the fats are still found in some baked goods such
as pie crusts and biscuits and in ready-to-eat frostings that use the
more-solid fats to keep consistency.
They also are sometimes used by restaurants for frying. Many larger chains
have phased them out, but smaller restaurants may still get food containing
trans fats from suppliers.
How can the government get rid of them? The FDA said it has made a
preliminary determination that trans fats no longer fall in the agency's
"generally recognized as safe" category, which covers thousands of additives
that manufacturers can add to foods without FDA review. Once trans fats are
off the list, anyone who wants to use them would have to petition the agency
for a regulation allowing it, and that would likely not be approved.
The fats are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more
solid, which is why they are often called partially hydrogenated oils. The
FDA is not targeting small amounts of trans fats that occur naturally in
some meat and dairy products, because they would be too difficult to remove
and aren't considered a major public health threat on their own.
Many companies have already phased out trans fats, prompted by new nutrition
labels introduced by FDA in 2006 that list trans fats and by an increasing
number of local laws, like one in New York City, that have banned them. In
2011, Wal-Mart pledged to remove all artificial trans fats from the foods
the company sells by 2016. Recent school lunch guidelines prevent them from
being served in cafeterias.
In a statement, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it was his city's
2008 ban that led to much of the progress. "Our prohibition on trans fats
was one of many bold public health measures that faced fierce initial
criticism, only to gain widespread acceptance and support," he said.
Indeed, consumers are eating less of the fat. According to the FDA, trans
fat intake among Americans declined from 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to around
one gram in 2012.
A handful of other countries have banned them, including Switzerland and
Denmark. Other countries have enacted strict labeling laws.
Dr. Leon Bruner, chief scientist at the Grocery Manufacturers Association,
said in a statement that his group estimates that food manufacturers have
voluntarily lowered the amount of trans fats in food products by 73 percent.
The group, which represents the country's largest food companies, did not
speculate on a reasonable timeline or speak to how difficult a ban might be
for some manufacturers. Bruner said in a statement that "consumers can be
confident that their food is safe, and we look forward to working with the
FDA to better understand their concerns and how our industry can better
Said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg: "While consumption of potentially
harmful artificial trans fat has declined over the last two decades in the
United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern."
Agency officials say they have been working on trans fat issues for around
15 years and have been collecting data to justify a possible phase-out since
just after President Barack Obama came into office in 2009.
The advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest first
petitioned FDA to ban trans fats nine years ago. The group's director,
Michael Jacobson, says the prohibition is "one of the most important
lifesaving actions the FDA could take."
"Six months or a year should be more than enough time, especially
considering that companies have had a decade to figure out what to do,"