FDA Eyes Ban on Trans Fat in Processed Foods

FDA Eyes Ban on Trans Fat in Processed Foods
Image: Pixabay
November 7, 2013

More than decade ago, a sea change began in the American diet, with consumers starting to avoid foods with trans fat and companies responding by reducing the amount of trans fat in their products.

This evolution began when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first proposed in 1999 that manufacturers be required to declare the amount of trans fat on Nutrition Facts labels because of public health concerns. That requirement became effective in 2006.

However, there are still many processed foods made with partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the major dietary source of trans fat in processed food. Trans fat has been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease, in which plaque builds up inside the arteries and may cause a heart attack.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that a further reduction of trans fat in the food supply can prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year.

Part of the FDA's responsibility to the public is to ensure that food in the American food supply is safe. Therefore, due to the risks associated with consuming PHOs, the FDA has issued a Federal Register notice with its preliminary determination that PHOs are no longer "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS, for short. If this preliminary determination is finalized, then PHOs would become food additives subject to premarket approval by the FDA. Foods containing unapproved food additives are considered adulterated under U.S. law, meaning they cannot legally be sold.

If the FDA determines that PHOs are not GRAS, it could, in effect, mean the end of artificial, industrially-produced trans fat in foods, says Dennis M. Keefe, Ph.D., director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety. The FDA is soliciting comments on how such an action would impact small businesses and how to ensure a smooth transition if a final determination is issued.

Trans fat wouldn't be completely gone, Keefe notes, because it also occurs naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products. It is also present at very low levels in other edible oils, such as fully hydrogenated oils, where it is unavoidably produced during the manufacturing process.

So for now, what should a consumer do if he or she picks up a favorite food and sees that it has trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label? The best thing to do is to consider the amounts of saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fat. Choose the product that has the lowest combined amount of these nutrients.