June 16, 2015 -- A number of popular foods are about to lighten up. The FDA is all but banning the use of partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of artery-clogging artificial trans fats, in processed food.
Food makers will have 3 years to remove partially hydrogenated oils from products, the agency says in a statement.
Experts can’t say there’s any safe level of trans fats to eat, "because we don't have the evidence," says Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, MPH, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Food makers have found substitutes for these controversial fats, he says, which proves "there's absolutely no need for trans fats in the food supply."
Today's final decision follows the agency's initial judgment in 2013 that the status of these fats should be changed. Those actions follow decades of research showing they boost the risk of heart disease.
"We generally support the goal of reduced trans fat,'' says Robert Collette, president of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils, whose members make the products. "We will continue to do what we have done for the past 10 years -- work with the food industry in formulating other alternatives."
Tuesday's FDA decision removes trans fats from a category known as ''generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). Ingredients in the GRAS category can be added to food without the agency's approval.
The move now means makers must get the agency’s OK to use trans fats in food.
The fats are used to help give foods stability, extend shelf life, and sometimes improve ''mouth feel,'' the response to a food's texture and flavor.
Public health experts praised the decision. Food makers pointed out that they’ve been gradually phasing out trans fats for years, but warn that some foods won't taste the same without them.
What Are Trans Fats?
They’re found in some processed foods, including desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, coffee creamer, and margarines. The fats can raise your LDL ''bad'' cholesterol and lower your HDL ''good" cholesterol.
"Studies show that diet and nutrition play a key role in preventing chronic health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, and today's action goes hand in hand with other FDA initiatives to improve the health of Americans, including updating the nutrition facts label," says Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in the statement.
The action "will save many thousands of lives," Mayne wrote on the FDA Voice blog. "It has become clear that what's good for extending shelf life is not equally good for extending human life."
Food makers began listing trans fat content on nutrition labels in 2006. Americans have gradually cut back on the fats, from 4.6 grams a day in 2003 to about a gram a day in 2012, according to the FDA. But eating even less could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 heart disease deaths a year, the agency says.
For now, food makers are allowed to claim a food is trans-fat-free as long as it has less than half a gram of it per serving. That will not immediately change. The FDA is deciding how to address the trans fat issue as part of its revisions to the nutrition facts labels on foods, which are expected later, Mayne told reporters during a briefing Tuesday. "We're looking at that now."
The food industry can file petitions for minimal use, says Jim O'Hara, director of health promotion policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Among the expected requests are to use trans fat in products such as cupcake sprinkles, he says.
That petition “will request that FDA allow some uses -- in very limited amounts -- of partially hydrogenated oils in food products,” says Roger Lowe, a spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "We're asking the FDA for continued, limited, specific uses of PHOs."
He said Tuesday the petition "will show that the presence of trans fat from the proposed low-level uses of partially hydrogenated oils is as safe as the naturally occurring trans fat present in the normal diet."
FDA officials would not confirm Tuesday whether a petition had been filed, but noted that after the 3-year period expires on June 18, 2018, any use of partially hydrogenated oils in foods not covered by an approved petition would be illegal.
Nutrition Experts React
The Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement Tuesday it was "pleased that FDA has acted in a manner that both addresses FDA's concerns and minimizes unnecessary disruptions to commerce." The 3-year period "provides time needed for food manufacturers to complete their transition to suitable alternatives and/or seek food additive approval," the association says.
Health advocates, meanwhile, applauded the action.
Stripping trans fats of their ''generally recognized as safe" standing is "absolutely the right decision," Willett says. "There is a massive amount of data showing harm."
He and his colleagues were among the first to link them with heart disease risk in the 1990s. Eating just 2% of calories from trans fats could raise that risk by about 25%, he says.
The decision is long overdue, O'Hara says. His organization asked the FDA to ban trans fats in 2004. "The health risks are clear,'' he says.
"The eventual elimination of artificial trans fat from the food supply will mean a healthier food supply, fewer heart attacks and heart disease deaths, and a major victory for public health," says Michael Jacobson, CSPI's executive director, in a statement Tuesday. The 3-year compliance period "gives companies more than enough time to eliminate the last of the partially hydrogenated oil that is still used in foods."
The American Heart Association and CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, were also among those expressing support.
"We couldn't be more gratified that this day has finally come," the heart association said in a statement.
The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization focused on the environment and public health, also praised the move but said the FDA didn't go far enough.
"We're disappointed that the FDA did not set a speedy deadline," says Renee Sharp, the group's director of research, in a statement. "What's worse, the FDA has failed to close the labeling loophole that allows processed food manufacturers to avoid full disclosure."
Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, director of women's heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, called the action "groundbreaking."
"These trans fats are part of the phenomenon that has made our country sicker and more unhealthy," she says. "In the era of 'low fat,' trans fats often became a substitute."
Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, president of the Institute of Food Technologists, whose members are from industry, government, and academic institutions, had a somewhat different view of the decision.
"In my gut, I don’t think it’s that big a threat to public health," she says. "But in light of consumer concerns it probably is a good thing to do."
Food Industry Reacts
The hardest challenge in finding alternatives to trans fats, Collette says, are for baked goods and other sweets, where the trans fats can improve the sensations of flavor and texture.
Food makers have already made great strides, Lowe says. From 2003 until now, he says, they’ve reduced trans fats by about 86%. "We expect the vast majority of trans fats will be removed by 2017."
WebMD News Editor Ashley Hayes contributed to this report.