In its continuing bid to drive trans fats from U.S. diets, the Food and Drug Administration said it is striking partially hydrogenated oils from the list of food additives it considers so safe that manufacturers may use them without special clearance.
The FDA's announcement Tuesday sets a three-year countdown for food makers to reformulate their products without hydrogenated oils unless they have gained the agency's specific approval to continue their use. That leaves open the possibility that the oils — the primary source of added trans fats in U.S. diets — may remain in limited use.
The modified oils have been used since the 1950s to make processed foods more shelf-stable. They have been a mainstay for generations of Americans that baked cakes from a box and frosted them out of a can, popped popcorn in a microwave while watching TV, and spread margarine instead of butter on their bread.
But in 2002, researchers found evidence that eating trans fatty acids throws blood cholesterol out of whack, raising levels of the bad kind and reducing levels of the helpful kind. They also linked the growing use of industrial trans fats to rising U.S. rates of heart disease.
Following a lengthy campaign by public health activists, the FDA in 2006 required food manufacturers to declare the amount of trans fats in their products. Then, in November 2013, the agency announced a plan to remove trans fatty acids from the U.S. food supply, opening a period of public debate that led to Tuesday's announcement.
The FDA has estimated that reducing the amount of trans fat in the U.S. diet could prevent as many as 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year. The agency concluded that the economic benefits of eliminating partially hydrogenated oils would greatly outweigh the costs of switching to more healthful oils. Over 20 years, the economic benefits would total between $117 billion and $242 billion, compared with a cost of $12 billion and $14 billion.
Trans fats are also found in dairy and beef. But the biochemical structure of those naturally occurring fats is different from that of industrial trans fat, and they are not thought to be dangerous.
Food manufacturers have already reduced their use of hydrogenated oils by 86%, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., which represents the makers of U.S. processed foods.
Citing the food industry's voluntary efforts to reformulate their offerings, FDA officials said Tuesday that they expect few companies will have difficulty meeting the three-year deadline.
Restaurants including Starbucks Corp., McDonald's Inc. and Long John Silver's have said they no longer use trans fats in their food.
Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, eliminated trans fats from its cooking oil in 2007. In a statement at the time, Taco Bell said it converted to using a canola oil containing no trans fat and a low linolenic soybean oil.
General Mills — maker of Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Pillsbury crescent rolls — has eliminated trans fats from more than 250 of its retail products, which represent about 90% of its U.S. offerings, according to the company.
But the switch isn't necessarily a quick adjustment.
The modified oils are still found in some brands of popular food products, such as frozen pizzas and coffee creamers. In 2011, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it would require suppliers to phase out artificial trans fats by this year. Currently, fewer than 6% of products in its stores contain partially hydrogenated oils, said company spokesman Kevin Gardner.
"We've made solid progress," he said. "That takes time. It's not easy, that's for sure."
That's left health-conscious consumers the tall task of deciphering nutrition labels on food packages, which are not always instructive. Trans fats must be listed on the ingredients label, but only if the product contains at least 0.5 grams per serving.
Officially, the FDA will remove partially hydrogenated oils from its list of food additives that are "generally regarded as safe" and which therefore can be used without special permission from regulators.
However, in the year and a half since the FDA announced its plan to remove trans fats from the U.S. food supply, the agency has encouraged manufacturers to submit petitions that would cite how, and at what levels, hydrogenated oils might be safely used, according to food industry officials.
The Grocery Manufacturers Assn. is now putting the finishing touches on such a petition, said Roger Lowe, the group's executive vice president for communications.
With the FDA entertaining the idea of exemptions, however, some companies have held off on reformulating their products.
Jim O'Hara, director of health promotion policy at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that strategy is short-sighted. Company after company has replaced partially hydrogenated oils and made "products that taste the same, that have the same consumer appeal, without trans fat," he
In 2006, when the FDA first took action on trans fats, Americans consumed an average of 4.6 grams of trans fat per day, according to the FDA. As of 2012, that amount has fallen to about 1 gram per day.
"We still have room for improvement," said Michael R. Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.
The FDA's move was widely applauded by public health groups, which
have been pressing for tougher action to remove trans fats from Americans' diets.
"The evidence is clear. There is no safe level of trans fat," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Assn. "Removing this source of industrial trans fat in the food supply will prevent thousands of preventable illnesses and deaths each year from heart disease."
Nancy Brown, chief executive officer of the American Heart Assn., added: "We are so pleased that the [generally regarded as safe] status for this industrially produced ingredient has been revoked at last."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the first local leader to take up arms against trans fat, pushing through a regulation in 2007 that forced New York City restaurants to virtually eliminate the use of partially hydrogenated oils and spreads. Within two years, the ban had reduced the average trans fat content of New Yorkers' fast-food meals from 3 grams to 0.5 gram.
"When the FDA finishes the work that we started in New York City, tens of
thousands of lives will be saved each year by this sensible public health measure," Bloomberg said Tuesday.