The FDA has just put the kibosh on trans fats in the U.S.: Within three years, food manufacturers will no longer be able to add partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) to processed foods. The overarching goal is to improve the cardiovascular health of the country, since the fats have been linked to heart risk, among other ailments, in the past.
“The FDA’s action on this major source of artificial trans fat demonstrates the agency’s commitment to the heart health of all Americans,” said FDA’s Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff in statement. “This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”
The decision was a long time coming. In 2006, the FDA started requiring manufacturers to identify trans fats on nutrition labels; in 2013 they decided that the fats no longer fell into the “generally recognized as safe” (or “GRAS”) category for use in human food. Today’s decision was an extension of that ruling, and was in the works for some time.
But what will it actually mean for consumers? It may mean more in theory than in practice. Trans fats have fallen out of favor anyway, as most of us are aware of the increasing health concerns – most notably heart risk, but also weight gain and even memory problems – and many may voluntarily avoid them simply by reading labels. Some manufacturers already advertise that their foods do not contain the fats, as selling points. And over the last few years, New York City and other parts of the country have already banned their use in restaurants, including chains like McDonald’s, which have reformulated recipes accordingly. So we’ve been trending in this direction for a while now.
“To some extent, this matter has already been judged in the court of public opinion,” says Davd L. Katz, Founding Director Yale University Prevention Research Center. “Most consumers have heard of the harms of trans fats, and seek to avoid them. Retailers have responded by eliminating them from more and more products – and would be doing so without any action by the FDA. But the FDA decision may accelerate the decisive end of the trans fat era, and its unintended consequences. The FDA action is important in principle whether or not it has much influence on practice.”
Manufacturers who currently use them will no doubt find clever ways to replace the fats without detracting from a product’s taste, or more importantly, its texture, which is what trans fats are really used for. And, funnily, they were once thought the healthy alternative to other varieties of fats. “Trans fats became prominent in the food supply in an effort to promote public health, by reducing reliance on highly saturated, tropical oils. We now know partially hydrogenated oils are worse for health than any of the fats they replaced,” says Katz.
The American Medical Association applauds the news, since they have been trying to get the ruling moved forward for some time. “The American Medical Association (AMA) commends the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its decision today to remove partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, from all U.S. food products,” said Steven J. Stack, M.D. “Last year, we issued a letter in support of the FDA’s efforts to restrict trans fat and also urged the FDA to take additional steps to impose strict limits on the amount of trans fat in processed foods. Today, we support the FDA’s move to eliminate trans fat as an important component in a multipronged strategy needed to help improve public health.”
Moving forward, companies will only be allowed to use the fats if they have express permission from the FDA. Otherwise, they’ll have to begin reformulating the recipes that still call for trans fats. Hopefully they won’t be replaced with products that are just as unhealthy, or worse. Time will tell whether the FDA’s decision to “outlaw” trans fats will have on the country’s cumulative health. But it’s a move that needed to be made.
“The official positions of the agency must keep pace with evolving science if they are to be credible, and respectable,” adds Katz. “Trans fat is not, on the evidence, generally recognized as safe. It is only right for the FDA to represent that current reality.”
For more information, see the FDA’s consumer page on trans fats.