The Food and Drug Administration has made a move toward further reducing – or eventually removing – the trans fat content in processed foods, with the "preliminary determination" that partially hydrogenated oils, the major source of trans fats, are "not generally recognized as safe" for use in food.
This determination is based on scientific evidence and expert scientific panel conclusions regarding the public health risks of trans fats, "and is an important step for removing harmful trans fat from processed foods," Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the FDA commissioner, said during a telephone briefing on Nov. 7 to announce the FDA’s action. This "will also allow adequate time for food manufacturers to reformulate products using alternative ingredients," she added.
She referred to the 2005 Institute of Medicine report concluding that trans fat, also called trans fatty acids, has no known health benefits, with no known safe level of consumption.
If this determination is finalized, partially hydrogenated oils will be considered food additives, and food manufacturers will not be able to add the ingredient to food unless authorized by regulation, according to the FDA statement.
To continue using trans fats as an ingredient, manufacturers would have to meet the safety standard for food additives, scientifically demonstrating that "there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from the use of the ingredients," said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, during the briefing.
The FDA has opened a 60-day comment period for stakeholders to respond, and is particularly interested in comments from manufacturers on how long it will take to remove this ingredient from their products.
Although many manufacturers have voluntarily reduced the amount of trans fat content in their products, trans fats are still present in many processed foods, including coffee creamers, frosting, frozen pizzas, margarine, and microwave popcorn products. The FDA’s last major effort to address the trans fat content of foods was in 2006, when manufacturers were required to list trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils in the Nutrition Facts label on food packaging. As a result, the average daily intake of trans fat dropped to about 1 g/day in 2012, from 4.6 g/day in 2003, according to the FDA.
If the determination is finalized, the length of time it will take for the trans fat to be removed from food products is unclear. During the briefing, FDA officials could not provide any estimates as to how long this process will take. For now, consumers should check the food labels to see if the product contains trans fats and avoid products that list partially hydrogenated oils as an ingredient, Dr. Hamburg said.
Consumption of trans fats increases the risk of coronary heart disease by raising LDL cholesterol levels.
In a statement issued by the American Heart Association, CEO Nancy Brown said the FDA’s action "is a tremendous step forward in the fight against heart disease." The AHA has "long advocated for eliminating trans fat from the nation’s food supply, and we commend the FDA for responding to the numerous concerns and evidence submitted over the years about the dangers of this industrially produced ingredient."
The AHA cited estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that avoiding foods containing trans fats could prevent 10,000-20,000 myocardial infarctions and 3,000-7,000 deaths caused by coronary heart disease each year in the United States.
The Federal Register notice, with information on how to submit comments, is available here.