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US food industry told to phase out trans fats

FDA gives manufacturers three years to adapt, but some are looking for exceptions.


June 17, 2015
by ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Popular foods like pie crusts, frostings and microwave popcorn will be largely rid of artery-clogging trans fats after a decision by the Obama administration to phase them out over the next three years.

The Food and Drug Administration on June 16 ordered food companies to phase out artificial trans fats, calling them a threat to public health. Consumers aren’t likely to notice much of a difference in their favourite foods, but the administration says the move will reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.

Scientists say there are no health benefits to the fats, which are used in processing food and in restaurants, usually to improve texture, shelf life or flavour. They can raise levels of “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the US.

The fats are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid, which is why they are often called partially hydrogenated oils.

Once a staple of the American diet – think shortening and microwave popcorn – most artificial trans fats are already gone. The FDA says that between 2003 and 2012, people ate about 78% less trans fat as food companies began using other kinds of oils to replace them.

But some foods still have them, and the FDA says those trans fats remaining in the food supply are a health concern. Among the foods that commonly contain trans fats: frostings, pie crusts, biscuits, microwave popcorn, coffee creamers, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, vegetable shortenings and stick margarines.

To phase the fats out, the FDA made a preliminary determination in 2013 that partially hydrogenated oils no longer fall in the agency’s “generally recognized as safe” category, which covers thousands of additives that manufacturers can add to foods without FDA review. The agency made that decision final June 16, giving food companies until June 2018 to phase them out.

Now that trans fats will be off the list of safe additives, any company that wants to use them will have to petition the agency to allow it. That would phase them out almost completely, since not many uses are likely to be deemed as safe.

Still, food companies are hoping for some exceptions. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the main trade group for the food industry, is working with companies on a petition that would formally ask the FDA if it can say there is a “reasonable certainty of no harm” from some specific uses of the fats. It provided no specifics.

But the association said in a statement that the FDA’s three-year compliance period “minimizes unnecessary disruptions to commerce.”

Trans fats are widely considered the worst kind of fats for your heart, even worse than saturated fats, which also can contribute to heart disease. Over the years, they have been used in foods that need solid fat for texture, or in those that need a longer shelf life or flavour enhancement. They also have been used by restaurants for frying.

The industry’s reduction in trans fats was helped along by FDA’s decision to force labelling of trans fats on food packages in 2006. But foods that list trans fat content as zero can still have very small amounts, since companies are allowed to round less than half of a gram of trans fat to zero on the package label.

Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says those hidden amounts can still “add up to a considerable intake of trans fats if you look at the overall diet.”

For now, the agency is recommending that consumers take a look at ingredient lists on packaged foods to make sure they don’t contain partially hydrogenated oils. Once the three-year compliance period is up, none of those ingredients would be allowed unless FDA specifically approves them.

The advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest first petitioned FDA to ban trans fats 11 years ago. The group’s director, Michael Jacobson, says the decision to phase them out “is probably the single most important thing the FDA has ever done for the healthfulness of the food supply.”

Also contributing to the decline over the years are local laws that restrict them in restaurants, such as those in New York City and California. Large retailers like Wal-Mart have reduced the amount they sell.

The FDA has not targeted small amounts of trans fats that occur naturally in some meat and dairy products, because they would be too difficult to remove and aren’t considered a major public health threat by themselves.

Questions and answers about the dangerous fats

WHAT ARE TRANS FATS? Trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid, which is why they are also called partially hydrogenated oils. They can contribute to heart disease and are considered even less healthy than saturated fats, which can also contribute to heart problems.

WHY ARE THEY SO BAD FOR YOU? Trans fats can raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol. That can contribute to heart disease – the leading cause of death in the United States.

HOW WILL TRANS FATS BE PHASED OUT? The FDA has determined that trans fats no longer fall in the agency’s “generally recognized as safe” category, which is reserved for thousands of additives that manufacturers can add to foods without FDA review. Once trans fats are off the list, anyone who wants to use them would have to petition the agency for a regulation allowing it.

SO THEY WON’T BE COMPLETELY BANNED? No. Food companies can petition the FDA to use them. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the main trade group for the food industry, is working with companies on a petition that would formally ask the FDA if it can say there is a “reasonable certainty of no harm” from some specific uses of the fats. But the agency isn’t likely to approve many uses since it has determined the fats are a threat to public health.

There will also be some trans fats in the food supply that occur naturally in meat and dairy products – the FDA has not targeted those small amounts because they would be too difficult to remove and aren’t considered a major public health threat by themselves.

HAVEN’T THEY ALREADY BEEN LARGELY PHASED OUT? Yes. The FDA says that between 2003 and 2012, people ate about 78% less trans fat as food companies began using other kinds of oils to replace them.

SO WHY IS THE FDA DOING THIS? The FDA is aiming to get rid of those trans fats that are left in the marketplace, saying they are still a public health concern. While the fats have been phased out in a lot of foods, some companies still use them.

HOW DO I KNOW I AM EATING THEM? The FDA has required the amount of trans fats in foods to be listed on the backs of food packages since 2006, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story – companies are allowed to round less than half of a gram of trans fat to zero on the package label. Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says those hidden amounts can still “add up to a considerable intake of trans fats if you look at the overall diet.”

For now, the agency is recommending that consumers take a look at ingredient lists on packaged foods to make sure they don’t contain partially hydrogenated oils. Once the three-year compliance period is up, none of those ingredients would be allowed unless FDA specifically approves them.

ARE ALL FATS BAD FOR YOU? No, but they should be eaten in moderation. Unsaturated fats found in nuts, vegetable oils and fish are the best for you. Saturated fats mostly derived from animals are less healthy and should be less than 10% of a person’s daily calories.

IS IT HARD TO FIND SUBSTITUTES? In some cases, no. Frying oils are easily substituted and food scientists have already figured out how to substitute other fats for trans fats in many items. In other cases, it will be harder. Ready-to-eat cake frosting, for example, gets some of its solid shape from trans fats.

WILL I NOTICE THE CHANGE? Probably not. Trans fats don’t have any particular taste, and in most cases other fats will simply be substituted. Your heart might notice, though. The Obama administration says the move will reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.
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