FDA steps up its drive to rid U.S. diet of trans fats

Man­u­fac­tur­ers will need spe­cific ap­proval to use par­tially hy­dro­genated oils.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Melissa Healy and Sa­man­tha Ma­sunaga

In its con­tin­u­ing bid to drive trans fats from U.S. di­ets, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion said it is strik­ing par­tially hy­dro­genated oils from the list of food ad­di­tives it con­sid­ers so safe that man­u­fac­tur­ers may use them with­out spe­cial clear­ance.

The FDA’s an­nounce­ment Tues­day sets a three­year count­down for food mak­ers to re­for­mu­late their prod­ucts with­out hy­dro­genated oils un­less they have gained the agency’s spe­cific ap­proval to con­tinue their use. That leaves open the pos­si­bil­ity that the oils — the pri­mary source of added trans fats in U.S. di­ets — may re­main in lim­ited use.

The mod­i­fied oils have been used since the 1950s to make pro­cessed foods more shelf-sta­ble. They have been a main­stay for gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­cans who baked cakes from a box and frosted them out of a can, popped pop­corn in a mi­crowave while watch­ing TV, and spread mar­garine in­stead of but­ter on their bread.

But in 2002, re­searchers found ev­i­dence that eat­ing trans fatty acids throws blood choles­terol out of whack, rais­ing lev­els of the bad kind and re­duc­ing lev­els of the help­ful kind. They also linked the grow­ing use of in­dus­trial trans fats to ris­ing U.S. rates of heart dis­ease.

Af­ter a lengthy cam­paign by public health ac­tivists, the FDA in 2006 re­quired food man­u­fac­tur­ers to de­clare the amount of trans fats in their prod­ucts. Then, in Novem­ber 2013, the agency an­nounced a plan to re­move trans fatty acids from

the U.S. food sup­ply, open­ing a pe­riod of public de­bate that led to Tues­day’s an­nounce­ment.

The FDA has es­ti­mated that re­duc­ing the amount of trans fat in the U.S. diet could pre­vent as many as 20,000 heart at­tacks and 7,000 deaths from heart dis­ease each year. The agency con­cluded that the eco­nomic ben­e­fits of elim­i­nat­ing par­tially hy­dro­genated oils would greatly out­weigh the costs of switch­ing to more health­ful oils. Over 20 years, the eco­nomic ben­e­fits would to­tal $117 bil­lion to $242 bil­lion, com­pared with a cost of $12 bil­lion to $14 bil­lion.

Trans fats are also found in dairy and beef. But the bio­chem­i­cal struc­ture of those nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring fats is dif­fer­ent from that of in­dus­trial trans fat, and they are not thought to be dan­ger­ous.

Food man­u­fac­tur­ers have al­ready re­duced their use of hy­dro­genated oils by 86%, ac­cord­ing to the Gro­cery Man­u­fac­tur­ers Assn., which rep­re­sents the mak­ers of U.S. pro­cessed foods.

Cit­ing the food in­dus­try’s vol­un­tary ef­forts to re­for­mu­late their of­fer­ings, FDA offi- cials said Tues­day that they ex­pect few com­pa­nies will have dif­fi­culty meet­ing the three-year dead­line.

Restau­rants such as Star­bucks Corp., McDon­ald’s Inc. and Long John Sil­ver’s have said they no longer use trans fats in their food.

Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, elim­i­nated trans fats from its cook­ing oil in 2007. In a state­ment at the time, Taco Bell said it con­verted to us­ing a canola oil con­tain­ing no trans fat and a low li­nolenic soy­bean oil.

Gen­eral Mills — maker of Haa­gen-Dazs ice cream and Pillsbury cres­cent rolls — has elim­i­nated trans fats from more than 250 of its re­tail prod­ucts, which rep­re­sent about 90% of its U.S. of­fer­ings, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany.

But the switch isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a quick ad­just­ment.

The mod­i­fied oils are still found in some brands of pop­u­lar food prod­ucts, such as frozen piz­zas and cof­fee cream­ers. In 2011, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it would re­quire sup­pli­ers to phase out ar­ti­fi­cial trans fats by this year. Cur­rently, less than 6% of prod­ucts in its stores con­tain par­tially hy­dro­genated oils, said com­pany spokes- man Kevin Gard­ner.

“We’ve made solid progress,” he said. “That takes time. It’s not easy, that’s for sure.”

That’s left health-con­scious con­sumers the tall task of de­ci­pher­ing nutri­tion la­bels on food pack­ages, which are not al­ways in­struc­tive. Trans fats must be listed on the in­gre­di­ents la­bel, but only if the prod­uct con­tains at least 0.5 grams per serv­ing.

Of­fi­cially, the FDA will re­move par­tially hy­dro­genated oils from its list of food ad­di­tives that are “gen­er­ally re­garded as safe” and which there­fore can be used with­out spe­cial per­mis­sion from reg­u­la­tors.

How­ever, in the year and a half since the FDA an­nounced its plan to re­move trans fats from the U.S. food sup­ply, the agency has en­cour­aged man­u­fac­tur­ers to sub­mit pe­ti­tions that would cite how, and at what lev­els, hy­dro­genated oils might be safely used, ac­cord­ing to food in­dus­try of­fi­cials.

The Gro­cery Man­u­fac­tur­ers Assn. is now putting the fin­ish­ing touches on such a pe­ti­tion, said Roger Lowe, the group’s ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent for com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

With the FDA en­ter­tain­ing the idea of ex­emp­tions, how­ever, some com­pa­nies have held off on re­for­mu­lat­ing their prod­ucts.

Jim O’Hara, di­rec­tor of health pro­mo­tion pol­icy at the non­profit Cen­ter for Science in the Public In­ter­est, said that strat­egy is short­sighted. Com­pany af­ter com­pany has re­placed par­tially hy­dro­genated oils and made “prod­ucts that taste the same, that have the same con­sumer ap­peal, with­out trans fat,” he said.

In 2006, when the FDA first took ac­tion on trans fats, Amer­i­cans con­sumed an av­er­age of 4.6 grams of trans fat per day, ac­cord­ing to the FDA. As of 2012, that amount has fallen to about 1 gram per day.

“We still have room for im­prove­ment,” said Michael R. Tay­lor, the FDA’s deputy com­mis­sioner for foods and vet­eri­nary medicine.

The FDA’s move was widely ap­plauded by public health groups, which have been press­ing for tougher ac­tion to re­move trans fats from Amer­i­cans’ di­ets.

“The ev­i­dence is clear. There is no safe level of trans fat,” said Dr. Ge­orges Ben­jamin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Public Health Assn. “Re­mov­ing this source of in­dus­trial trans fat in the food sup­ply will pre­vent thou­sands of pre­ventable ill­nesses and deaths each year from heart dis­ease.”

Nancy Brown, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Amer­i­can Heart Assn., said, “We are so pleased that the [gen­er­ally re­garded as safe] sta­tus for this in­dus­tri­ally pro­duced in­gre­di­ent has been re­voked at last.”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the first lo­cal leader to take up arms against trans fat, push­ing through a reg­u­la­tion in 2007 that forced New York City restau­rants to vir­tu­ally elim­i­nate the use of par­tially hy­dro­genated oils and spreads. Within two years, the ban had re­duced the av­er­age trans fat con­tent of New York­ers’ fast-food meals from 3 grams to 0.5 gram.

“When the FDA fin­ishes the work that we started in New York City, tens of thou­sands of lives will be saved each year by this sen­si­ble public health mea­sure,” Bloomberg said Tues­day.

Joe Raedle Getty Im­ages

MI­CROWAVE POP­CORN is a prod­uct that still in­cor­po­rates a large amount of trans fats.

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