The Food and Drug Administration moved Thursday to virtually eliminate trans fat, an artificially created artery-clogging substance, from Americans’ diets.
The move follows a widespread effort by food makers and restaurant chains to remove the substance over the past decade as consumers become more educated about risks and buy healthier alternatives. The FDA has required nutritional labels break out trans fat content since 2006, a regulation that spurred many companies to alter their recipes.
The FDA noted that trans fats in processed food have been shown to raise “bad” cholesterol, raising the risk of coronary heart disease. Reducing the use of trans fats could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease a year, the FDA said.
“While consumption of potentially harmful artificial trans fat has declined over the past two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern,” Food and Drug Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said.
Under the new rules, the FDA has declared that partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of trans fats, are a food additive not “generally recognized as safe.”
The new guidelines will require companies wishing to use the ingredient to first seek approval from the FDA. It also would prevent companies from claiming their food contains “zero grams trans fat” if the product has a half-gram or less per serving, the latitude currently allowed on nutrition labels.
Nutritionists say it’s a win that will take a dangerous substance out of the American diet.
Trans fats are used mostly for texture and stability – they extend shelf life, preserve flavor, impart flakiness to crusts and biscuits and keep peanut butter from separating.
Trans fatty acids, or trans fats, are formed when manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats by adding hydrogen atoms, a process called hydrogenation.
The fats increased in use as Americans added more processed foods into their diets starting in the 1950s. A few decades later, trans fats came into favor as a reportedly healthier alternative to saturated fat amid growing concerns about health risks. But by the 1990s, studies began to question trans fats’ own impact on health.
The FDA has opened a 60-day review period to take input from the food industry and other experts.
Americans’ consumption of trans fats has declined almost 80 percent in the past decade, thanks to broader education about their risks, voluntary reduction by food manufacturers and restaurants and some local bans, like New York City’s in 2007.
California became the first state to require restaurants to stop cooking with trans fats in 2008. A proposal that would have banned trans fats in Illinois failed in 2011.
“Getting rid of artificial trans fat is one of the most important life-saving measures the FDA could take,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group.
Most major restaurant chains eliminated partially hydrogenated oils for use in cooking in the mid- to late-2000s, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But a number of chains still have menu items that contain some partially hydrogenated oil in baked goods.
McDonald’s Corp. uses cooking oil that contains zero grams of trans fat per serving, but the USDA’s nutritional database notes that some of its products, such as apple pies, cookies and pancakes, contain trans fats.
McDonald’s declined to comment Thursday.
General Mills, owner of brands Betty Crocker and Pillsbury, said it has taken the trans fat out of more than 90 percent of its U.S. retail products. It pledged on Thursday to eliminate the rest in response to the FDA’s proposed rules.
“This is a major development, and food companies will need to quickly consider and respond to this request,” General Mills said in a prepared statement. “We will … need to move to respond quickly to FDA on this question, and we will.”
The FDA proposal focuses on partially hydrogenated oils and would not affect the small amount of naturally occurring trans fat found in some meat and dairy products.
Although the risk of trans fats has been known for years, a majority of Americans don’t necessarily want to ban them entirely.
A survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center says 44 percent of Americans favor a trans fat ban, while 52 percent are opposed. More women than men say they support a government ban, according to the study, and a greater percentage of Republicans oppose a ban than Democrats.
David Schleifer, a senior research associate at Public Agenda who has studied the history of trans fat in food, said Americans tend to miss the bigger picture when rallying against ingredients like trans fats.
“I think a part of how we got into this was thinking of food as one nutrient at a time – and I think there is still a risk of doing that. If a cookie is trans fat free, it is still a cookie.”