The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just announced its so-called “preliminary determination” that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs)—the primary source found in artificial trans fats and a component of processed foods—are not safe. As part of its preliminary determination, the FDA also stated that this component is, in fact, not “generally recognized as safe” for use in food, based on scientific data and expert scientific panel findings.
“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,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “The FDA’s action today is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat. Further reduction in the amount of trans fat in the American diet could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year—a critical step in the protection of Americans’ health.”
The FDA says that consuming trans fats raises low-density lipoprotein, also known as LDL or “bad” cholesterol. This, in turn, increases risks for coronary heart disease.
The agency opened a 60-day comment period on this preliminary determination so that additional data may be collected and so that information on the amount of time possibly needed for food makers to reformulate products containing artificial trans fat might be made.
Although a number of food manufacturers have decreased trans fat levels in their foods and while foods have been shown to be made without the use of trans fats, they can still be found in processed foods such as certain desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarines, and coffee creamers, according to the agency. The independent Institute of Medicine (IOM) has concluded that trans fat provides no known health benefit and that there is no safe level of consumption of artificial trans fat.
“One of the FDA’s core regulatory functions is ensuring that food, including all substances added to food, is safe,” said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. “Food manufacturers have voluntarily decreased trans fat levels in many foods in recent years, but a substantial number of products still contain partially hydrogenated oils, which are the major source of trans fat in processed food.”
Following its review of comments submitted and if the agency finalizes its preliminary determination, PHOs would then be deemed “food additives” and would not be allowed in food unless authorized by regulation. Should this determination be made, the FDA would provide adequate time for producers to reformulate products to minimize market disruption. The agency’s preliminary determination only concerns PHOs and has no effect on naturally occurring trans fats that can be found in small amounts in some meats and dairy products.
“The artery is still half clogged,” Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told The New York Times. “This is about preventing people from being exposed to a harmful chemical that most of the time they didn’t even know was there,” he added, noting that the presence of artificial trans fats must be indicated on a food label if there is more than half a gram per serving. Although this is considered a trace amount, trans fats can accumulate quickly, leading to increased heart attack risks, according to the Times. In fact, just two or three grams of trans fats daily can lead to increased risks, research indicates.
“Most of it is gone, but what remains is still a serious problem,” Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), told the Times. As far back as 1994, the CSPI petitioned the FDA to mandate that artificial trans fats be listed on nutrition labels.