The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Thursday it is beginning a process that could eliminate artificial trans fats in foods. The agency is challenging the safety status of the major source of artificial trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). PHOs in the past have been deemed “generally recognized as safe,” (GRAS) but the agency has now issued a preliminary notice that this is no longer the case. The FDA first began targeting artificial trans fats in 1999 when it issued a proposal to list trans fats on nutrition labels. The proposal eventually took effect in 2006.
In the announcement on its website, Dennis M. Keefe, the Director of FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety, explained that if PHOs are not deemed GRAS, it would mean that companies are no longer allowed to use them in food products. There will be a 60 day feedback period, where companies can tell the FDA how having to remove PHOs will affect production and business.
PHOs have been included in food since the 1950s, and are especially found in packaged foods, like frozen meals. As an additive, it increases the shelf-life of foodstuffs, and stabilizes flavors. Research since then, the FDA explains, has linked the consumption of trans fats to an increased risk of heart disease. The risk is greater for those who ingest trans fats because their bad cholesterol levels are raised.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that avoiding artificial trans fats can prevent between 10,000 and 20,000 heart attacks per year, as well as 3,000 to 7,000 deaths from coronary heart disease. CDC Director, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, told the New York Times eliminating artificial trans fats “is about preventing people from being exposed to a harmful chemical that most of the time they didn’t even know was there.”
Awareness has already changed habits of consumers, and businesses, according to the FDA. Ahead of trans fats being listed on labels, Americans began voluntarily turning away from the ingredient as early as 2003. Businesses adapted early as well, changing how foods were prepared. New York City began implementing a ban on trans fats in restaurants in 2007. The FDA listed foods that still often contain artificial trans fats. It includes: frozen pizzas and pies, coffee creamers, crackers, cookies, vegetable shortenings and stick margarines, and refrigerated dough products (such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls) to name a few. One Pillsbury Cinnamon roll, for example, contains 2 grams of trans fat.
Some foods naturally have trans fat in them, and are not part of the proposed ban. The American Heart Association says small, natural amounts occur in “meat and dairy products, including beef, lamb, and butterfat.” It is unclear whether the same health risks are inherent in naturally occurring trans fats.