Most Americans still eat about a gram of trans fat every day. Health experts say phasing out these fats could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year, according to The Associated Press (AP).
Voluntary action by food producers has significantly reduced trans fats in food products in the last decade. In the proposal under consideration, trans fats would be almost entirely banned from most food products, the AP reports.
Trans fats are widely used to improve texture and flavor of foods and to extend shelf life, but scientists say these fats have no health benefits. Trans fats can raise the level of “bad” cholesterol in the blood and lower “good” cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
In 2013, the FDA made a preliminary determination that trans fats no longer fall in the category of food ingredients “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Manufacturers can use GRAS ingredients or additives in their products without FDA review. But if trans fats are no longer GRAS, companies that want to use them would have to petition the agency for permission. Not many uses are likely to be approved, according to the AP.
Trans fats—partially hydrogenated oils—are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid. Varying amounts of trans fats are currently found in many of the foods American consume on a daily basis, including crackers, cookies, cakes, and other baked goods; snack foods (microwave popcorn), frozen pizza, refrigerated doughs, coffee creamers, and ready-to-use frostings. Vegetable shortening and stick margarine contain trans fats.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association—the food industry’s main trade group—says food manufacturers have voluntarily reduced trans fats in their products by 86 percent since 2003, reformulating recipes and finding other types of oils to replace trans fats. In 2006, the FDA instituted a requirement that trans fats be included in the Nutrition Facts labeling of food products. Some localities, like New York City, have already enacted trans fat bans on their own, the AP reports.
The phase out would come more slowly for products where it is difficult to find an acceptable substitute for trans fat, FDA official have said. The ban would not target trans fats that occur naturally in some meat and dairy products. The FDA says those would be too difficult to remove, and occur in small amounts that are not considered a major public health threat on their own.
The advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, first petitioned for a trans fat ban 11 years ago. Michael Jacobson, the organization’s director, praised the food industry’s voluntary efforts to reduce trans fats but still considers federal action necessary. He describes the phasing out of trans fats as “the single most important thing the FDA has done about the healthfulness of our food supply,” the AP reports.