The Food and Drug Administration’s move to ban trans fats aims to halt the food industry’s use of partially hydrogenated oils blamed for 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year. But health advocates argue that the policy, announced this week, doesn’t go far enough.
In fact, the FDA regulation allows for a three-year phase-in period, contains loopholes likely to allow the dangerous fats to remain in many processed foods, and could provide exceptions for certain products.
“We applaud the FDA for taking an important step that would eventually eliminate partially hydrogenated oils — the primary source of trans fats in Americans’ diets — in our food,” said Renee Sharp, director of research for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit health advocacy group.
“But we’re disappointed that the FDA did not set a speedy deadline. What’s worse, the FDA has failed to close the labeling loophole that allows processed food manufacturers to avoid full disclosure.”
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The FDA action followed heavy pressure from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has pressed federal health officials for a trans fats ban for decades. But the policy change announces this week contains key weaknesses that health advocates say could undermine the effort to remove the harmful fats:
- 3-year implementation: The FDA gives food processors three years to transition to other ingredients, and it has stopped short of banning all sources of synthetic trans fat. That means many food products — including stick margarines, baked goods, and microwave popcorn — may continue to contain the artificial oils even though many consumers may believe they have been banned.
- Zero doesn’t mean zero: The FDA rule contains a loophole that allows food manufacturers not to disclose trans fat content of less than half a gram per serving. In other words, the label of an item containing up to 0.5 grams of trans fat can falsely claim the product is “trans fat free.” Consumers who eat a package containing several servings can unknowingly consume several grams of fats.
- Not a blanket ban: The FDA rule does not prevent the industry from using other hidden sources of trans fat — such as refined oils, fully hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers, flavors, and colors.
- Exceptions likely: Any food maker that wants to continue using trans fats can petition the agency to allow it to do so. In fact, the Grocery Manufacturers Association — the leading trade industry group in the U.S. — is reportedly already working on a petition to the FDA to allow food makers to say there is a "reasonable certainty of no harm" from some specific uses of the fats.
Partially hydrogenated oils, including those in trans fats, have been used as ingredients since the 1950s to improve the shelf-life of processed foods. The FDA has issued a final determination that PHOs are not “Generally Recognized as Safe” or GRAS, meaning they may no longer be added to food after June 18, 2018, unless they are otherwise approved by FDA.
In 2006, the FDA required manufacturers to declare the amount of trans fat on the food label because of these public health concerns. Many manufacturers responded by voluntarily changing their product formulations to reduce or eliminate trans fat.
Yet PHOs have continued to be found in some brands of popular food products, such as frostings, microwave popcorn, packaged pies, frozen pizzas, stick margarines, and coffee creamers. For consumers who consistently eat foods with added PHOs, their daily intake of industrially-produced trans fat is twice as high as the average consumer, the FDA says.
Susan Mayne, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the agency’s new rule on PHOs will result in a reduction of American deaths — by the thousands — from heart attacks linked to trans fats. She called the three-year phase in will allow for “an orderly process as companies make the transition” to using healthier additives.
“At the heart of FDA’s mission is a responsibility to ensure that the foods we eat, and share with our family, are as safe as possible,” she said in a statement released with the FDA’s announcement. “It’s a responsibility to protect health by taking action when needed, based on the best available science .… This action will save many thousands of lives.”
But EWG researchers said this week that FDA memos show the food industry has developed at least 200 uses for partially hydrogenated oils, and industry officials have said that 80 percent of these uses don’t require disclosure of the presence of trans fat because of the half-gram loophole.
EWG research has also found that manufacturers use artificial trans fat ingredients in 27 percent of more than 84,000 processed foods sold in American supermarkets. Yet trans fat was disclosed on the labels of only 2 percent of those items, including breakfast bars, granola and trail mix bars, pretzels, peanut butter, crackers, breads, kids fruit snacks, cereal, graham crackers, pudding mixes, cupcakes, and ice cream cones.
“Some responsible food retailers and manufacturers have already bowed to consumer pressure and have stopped using trans fat-laden partially hydrogenated oils in their products,” said Ken Cook, EWG president. “We hope the FDA’s action today will spur more companies to act quicker to clean up their food and give consumers more choices that are better for their health.”
In the meantime, however, EWG experts and health authorities say consumers need to continue to check food labels for trans fats and choose products that don’t contain them.
The American Heart Association recommends keeping trans fats to one percent or less of total calories consumed.
The AHA also recommends consumption of healthy fats — such as omega-3 fatty acids in nuts, olive oil, and fish like salmon, mackerel and herring — which can be good for the heart, reducing blood pressure, and triglyceride levels.
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