FDA moves to reduce trans fats in processed foods

Nov. 16, 2013—The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking steps to remove industry-added trans fats from the American diet.

The FDA has decided that partially hydrogenated oil—the main kind of artificial trans fat in the American diet—is not safe and should not be used in food.

For now, the decision is preliminary. The FDA has opened a 60-day comment period, asking food companies to weigh in on how long reformulating their products would take.

“While consumption of potentially harmful artificial trans fat has declined over the last two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, MD. “The FDA’s action today is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat. Further reduction in the amount of trans fat in the American diet could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year—a critical step in the protection of Americans’ health.”

Both the American Heart Association (AHA) and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics support the effort. It’s a “tremendous step forward in the fight against heart disease,” according to the AHA.

About the proposal

The proposed rule affects artificial trans fats. It does not affect trans fats that occur naturally in meat and some dairy products.

If the decision gets final approval, partially hydrogenated oils could not be used in food unless allowed by regulation.

Partially hydrogenated oils are fats that are made by injecting hydrogen into vegetable oil to make it solid. Companies started using them in the 1950s to give processed foods a longer shelf life and better flavor.

In 2002, a federal report linked trans fat consumption to unhealthy levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) and higher risk of heart disease.

Americans started to want products without trans fats, and companies voluntarily reformulated many of their products. Today, many products boast “0 grams trans fats” in bold letters on the front of their packaging.

Americans are eating less trans fats too. Consumption fell from 4.6 grams a day in 2003 to about 1 gram per day in 2012, according to the FDA.

Still, trans fats are still found in many processed and quick foods, including:

  • Crackers, cookies, doughnuts, cakes, frozen pies and other baked goods.
  • Microwave popcorn and other snack foods.
  • Frozen pizzas.
  • Stick margarines and vegetable shortenings.
  • Refrigerated dough, such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls.
  • Ready-to-use frostings.
  • Coffee creamers.

Even products labeled as having no trans fats might have some anyway, according to the FDA. Companies can legally make that claim if a product has less than 0.5 grams per serving. That policy “confuses and misleads” consumers, according to the AHA.

“Selecting foods with even small amounts of trans fat can add up to a significant intake,” according to the FDA.

The take-home message
After the comment period, the FDA will have to sift through comments, make a final decision and, if needed, give companies time to reformulate their products. In the meantime, the healthiest choice is for consumers to limit trans fats as much as possible, according to the FDA, which offers these tips:

  • Switch from stick margarine to soft margarine.
  • Look carefully at nutrition labels. Choose products with the fewest grams of trans fat and the lowest combined total for saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fat.
  • Check the ingredients list, even if a product says it has no trans fats. If partially hydrogenated oil appears on the list, the product contains some trans fat. Choose a product without partially hydrogenated oil.

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