Nov. 7, 2013 -- The FDA announced Thursday that it is taking steps that will all but eliminate artery-clogging trans fats in processed foods.
The agency is proposing to label partially hydrogenated oils, the primary source of trans fats, as “not generally recognized as safe” for use in food.
Although many food makers have removed trans fats from their products in recent years, they are still found in some processed foods, such as margarine, microwave popcorn, and some desserts.
Eating lots of of trans fats has been linked to heart disease.
“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,” FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, MD, says in a statement.
Final Decision Coming
With today's announcement, the FDA opened a 60-day comment period. During that time, the agency will collect additional information on trans fats.
Hamburg says the agency will make a final decision after the comment period ends.
If the FDA approves the change, food makers would have to prove that trans fats are safe in order to use them.
Trans fats have appeared as an ingredient on nutrition labels since 2006. Since that time, the amount Americans eat has gone down from 4.6 grams a day in 2003 to about 1 gram a day in 2012, the FDA says.
The independent Institute of Medicine says trans fats have no health benefits and shouldn’t be eaten in any amount.
The ban only applies to artificial trans fats, not those found naturally in small amounts in butter, some meats, and other foods.
Manufacturers Already Giving Up Trans Fats
Trans fats in foods ''have been top of mind for snack food makers for the past 5 or 10 years," says Beth Johnson, RD, a food policy consultant for the Snack Food Association. "We certainly want to work with the FDA to be sure the decisions are based on science and done in a thoughtful manner.''
In a statement, the association says 95% of food makers had reduced trans fats and that the majority have plans to get rid of them.
Marisa Moore, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, calls the FDA’s proposal a “major win.”
While the levels of trans fats have declined in recent years, she says they are still found in fried foods, doughnuts, snack cakes, and cookies.
The proposal to further reduce trans fats, she says, ''will make the healthy choice a little bit easier."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a statement supporting the move. "Not only is artificial trans fat not safe, it's not remotely necessary,” says CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson. “Many companies, large and small, have switched to healthier oils over the past decade. I hope that those restaurants and food manufacturers that still use this harmful ingredient see the writing on the wall and promptly replace it."
Johnson of the Snack Food Association says she does not know how long it will take to phase out trans fats from processed foods.
If the timeline to remove the trans fats is too brief, some products may disappear, says Janet E. Collins, PhD, RD, president of the Institute of Food Technologists. Trans fats serve a function, making cakes tender and snack foods crisp, she says.
"Manufacturers have been looking for substitutes," she says, and some are available. Even so, she estimates, it could take 2 years to get the artificial trans fats entirely out of the food supply.