Trans Fats Out Within 3 Years, FDA Says

Kathleen Doheny and Robert Lowes

Disclosures

June 16, 2015

Food manufacturers must remove partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the main source of artery-clogging artificial trans fat, from processed foods in the next 3 years, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced today.

The elimination of PHOs could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7000 deaths from heart disease each year, according to the agency.

Today's announcement follows a tentative FDA determination in 2013 that PHOs could no longer be classified as "generally considered as safe," or GRAS, based on available scientific evidence and the findings of expert panels.

A leading epidemiologist and nutritionist whose research was the among the first to link artificial trans fat with the risk for heart disease called the FDA's move "absolutely the right decision."

"There is a massive amount of data showing harm," said Walter Willett, MD, MPH, DrPH, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts.

The food industry already has been eliminating or reducing the amount of PHOs in processed foods such as frozen pizzas, margarine, crackers, microwave popcorn, and baked goods. The ability of food makers to find substitutes for PHOs proves "there's absolutely no need for trans fats in the food supply," Dr Willett said in an interview with WebMD.

Final FDA regulations to be published in the Federal Register will allow food manufacturers to petition the agency to use minimal amounts of PHOs. Among the expected requests is the use of PHOs in products such as cupcake sprinkles.

Food makers warn that some foods will not taste the same without the artificial trans fat found in PHOs. The hardest challenge for finding alternatives is for baked goods and other sweets, where trans fats can improve the sensation of flavor and texture, said Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, president of the Institute of Food Technologists.

Trans fats also help give foods stability and extend their shelf live.

The FDA has required food manufacturers to list trans fat content on nutrition labels since 2003. Since then, Americans have reduced their daily intake of trans fat by roughly 80%, from 4.6 g to about 1 g as of 2012.

Food makers can put trans fat content at zero on nutrition labels as long as the product has less a half a gram per serving. The small amount of trans fat that gets rounded off to zero can include naturally occurring trans fats found in meat and dairy products.

The ability to describe products as trans fat free, even though they contain a tiny amount — what some food safety advocates call a loophole — will not allow manufacturers to incorporate PHOs after the 3-year deadline unless their use is granted through a special petition, an FDA official said at a news briefing today.

"Other uses beyond approved uses will be illegal," said Dennis Keefe, PhD, director of the Office of Food Additives in the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

The center's director, Susan Mayne, PhD, added that bringing trans fat down to 0 g per serving is important.

"Even if consumers choose food products that they say they have 0 g," said Dr Mayne, "they could be getting small amounts of PHOs that can add up to a considerable intake of trans fat when you look at the overall diet."

More information about today's announcement is available on the FDA website.

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