As just announced in its June 16 press release, the Food and Drug Administration has finalized its determination that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary food manufacturing source of trans fats, are not “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for foods, giving grocery manufacturers three years to remove them entirely from food products.
Because partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are no longer “generally recognized as safe,” they become subject to premarket approval by FDA as food additives, and approval of exceptions seems unlikely, even though the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) will lobby for a reconsideration of a ban on low-level uses.
The terms partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) and trans fats are used somewhat interchangeably because PHOs are the main food processing source of trans fats. Partially hydrogenated oils are created in the production of some food products when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to make them semi-solid in consistency. In bakery applications, for example, trans fats can give liquid vegetable oils that are cheaper, more shelf stable, and cholesterol-free the functional performance of butter, which generally sets the norm for quality expectations for baked goods.
Foods containing unapproved food additives are considered adulterated under U.S. law, meaning they cannot legally be sold. In plainer English, the FDA is essentially banning trans fats in food products, and the “no trans fats” label on food products will become obsolete. Naturally occurring trans fats found in small amounts in some meat and dairy products are not additives and a special case, and they do not fall under the ban.
Since 2006, the FDA has mandated that nutritional labels on foods specify the level of trans fat content. In November 2013, the FDA announced its intention to accelerate the elimination of partially hydrogenated oils from the U.S. food supply, having provisionally made the determination that these trans fats carriers are not GRAS. The intensifying glare of regulatory attention on trans fats has already spurred extensive reformulation in the food market, such that trans fat has been reduced by 78 percent since 2003, according to an FDA estimate, and by 86 percent, according to the GMA. Nevertheless, partially hydrogenated oils are still commonly used in many popular food products, which the FDA has identified as:
- crackers, cookies, cakes, frozen pies and other baked goods
- snack foods (such as microwave popcorn)
- frozen pizza
- vegetable shortenings and stick margarines
- coffee creamers
- refrigerated dough products (such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls)
- ready-to-use frostings
Moreover, FDA regulation previously allowed less than a half gram of trans fats to be labeled as “0g,” so that zero didn’t mean what consumers would logically interpret it to mean. That loophole, too, is closing.
In terms of consumer confidence, the mainstream food industry has paid a price for foot-dragging and sleight-of-hand on nutritional and labeling issues, leading to consumer counter-revolutions including the current clean label movement. A November 2014 survey by Packaged Facts showed 23 percent of U.S. adults strongly agreeing and 38 percent somewhat agreeing that, “Grocery manufacturers often mislead by highlighting only the positive nutritional qualities in their products, not the negative ones.” At the other end of the spectrum, only 3 percent strongly disagree and only 6 percent somewhat disagree. The findings were published in the Packaged Facts report, “Food Formulation Trends: Ingredients Consumers Avoid.”
From the perspective of public health, trans fats have been especially linked to coronary disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Trans fats raise the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol while lowering the level of HDL (good) cholesterol. Various health organizations have long fought the use of trans fats. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association both cite research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2012) estimating that a trans fat ban could prevent 10,000-20,000 heart attacks and 3,000-7,000 coronary heart disease deaths in the U.S. annually. Dr. Steven Nisssen, chair of the cardiovascular medicine department at the Cleveland Clinic (long top-ranked nationally for cardiology) describes trans fats as “clearly harmful” and praises the FDA’s ban. The ban is also consistent with First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature Let’s Move initiative, with its focus on childhood obesity.