After two decades of battles by public health advocates, the artery clogging trans fats common in cookies, frozen pizzas and other processed foods have been deemed unsafe by U.S. regulators, opening the door to a ban.
While restaurant chains such as McDonald’s Corp. have moved away from trans fats, the Food and Drug Administration said the additive is too prevalent in snack foods and baked goods. The agency yesterday made a tentative decision that partially hydrogenated oils, the main vehicle for artificial trans fat, can’t be considered safe because of links to heart disease.
Ridding the additive from the food supply should be quick as General Mills Inc., Starbucks Corp. and other companies have already reduced trans fats since the FDA required the ingredient to be listed on labels in 2006. Stragglers won’t be far behind, said Penny Kris-Etherton, a nutrition professor at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Health and Human Development.
“They’ll try to move as fast as they can” to make sure their foods comply with the FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe standard, Kris-Etherton said in an interview. “It’s not good for them to have food products out there that don’t have GRAS status. They’re concerned about their reputation.”
The FDA’s decision, while not final, probably will lead to a ban on a product that’s been in widespread use since the 1940s.
“We will almost certainly continue in that direction,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said on a conference call yesterday. Nothing is final, though “we are on a clear track.”
Companies that want to keep using partially hydrogenated oils would need FDA clearance, a high hurdle that would involve disproving scientific evidence of health risks. Food makers have 60 days to comment on the agency’s finding and say how long the industry might need to reformulate foods.
While trans fats occur naturally in some meat and dairy, most of what is found in processed food are vegetable oils treated with hydrogen to improve texture, extend shelf life and stabilize flavors. The hydrogenation converts a liquid oil into a solid. That solidification, for example, is what helps frosting adhere to a donut, Kris-Etherton said.
Non trans-fat alternatives include fully hydrogenated oils and palm oil, which is solid at room temperature, she said.
Partially hydrogenated oils “perform technological functions” and will require product-specific changes to reformulate food containing the ingredient, Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, said on the call.
General Mills, the maker of Cheerios cereals and Betty Crocker cake mixes, said its industry has been reducing reliance on partially hydrogenated oils for years.
“This is a major development, and food companies will need to quickly consider and respond to this request” by the FDA, said Kirstie Foster, a spokeswoman for Minneapolis-based General Mills. “More than 90 percent of our U.S. retail products are already labeled as ‘zero grams trans fat.’”
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose 300-plus members include Coca Cola Co. and Kraft Foods Group Inc., said since 2005, food companies have voluntarily lowered the amounts of trans fats by more than 73 percent.
ConAgra Foods Inc. removed trans fat from products such as Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn years ago, Teresa Paulsen, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said in 2011 that it was reformulating thousands of packaged food items, partly to eliminate all remaining industrially produced trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils.
New York City in 2006 began a ban on trans fats in restaurants, and California followed suit in 2008.
The FDA, which never made a safety determination before on most forms of partially hydrogenated oil in foods, said the initial costs of removing the ingredient from the food supply would be about $8 billion, though that cost may be spread out over multiple years.
The FDA may allow for a two- to three-year implementation period, Janet Collins, president of the Washington-based Institute of Food Technologists, said in a telephone interview.
“Most would not wait until the final day to do it,” she said. “They’ll do it as quickly as technically feasible.”
The American Heart Association praised the FDA’s actions and asked the agency to revise standards for trans-fat free labeling that allow companies to round down to zero if products contain less than 0.5 grams of the additive.
“The FDA’s actions to ultimately remove artificial trans fat from the diets of all Americans is a tremendous step forward in the fight against heart disease,” Nancy Brown, the chief executive officer of the Dallas-based association, said in a statement.
Eliminating partially hydrogenated oils may prevent as many as 7,000 coronary deaths a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, asked the FDA in 2004 to declare partially hydrogenated oils unsafe. A University of Illinois professor made a similar request in 2009, asking the FDA to ban partially hydrogenated fat from the American diet.
The partial hydrogenation process was developed in the 1930s and has been in widespread commercial use since the 1940s, the FDA said. In 2010, the mean trans fat intake was 1.3 grams per day for the U.S. population older than 2 years of age who consumed one or more of processed foods containing partially hydrogenated oils. In 2003, the mean trans fat intake of an adult 20 years or older was 4.6 grams per day, the FDA said.