From the cereal bowl to the snack bowl, the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to restrict the amount of processed trans fats on the kitchen table is part of an ongoing effort to address the public’s waning appetite for the heart-clogging ingredient.
Trans fat, or partially hydrogenated oil, has long been used by the food industry as a fat source which improves the taste and texture of many items such as cookies, cake mixes, doughnuts and various snack foods.
It is artificially made by adding hydrogen gas to vegetable oil, resulting in a more solid fat, like shortening or margarine. It also occurs naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products, as well as some other edible oils like fully hydrogenated oils.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eliminating foods containing artificially produced trans fat could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 coronary heart disease deaths each year in the U.S. The American Heart Association estimates an average of one American dies every 40 seconds from cardiovascular disease.
The FDA’s new proposal would change trans fat from an ingredient “generally recognized as safe,” to a food additive requiring more stringent regulation. It is now subject to a 60 day public comment period.
Efforts to limit the amount of trans fat began at the federal level in 1999, when the FDA first proposed that manufacturers be required to declare the amount of trans fat on nutrition facts labels.
The labeling requirement took effect in 2006 and prompted many food manufacturers to switch to other fat sources, said Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, the Stanley N. Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Many fast food chains such as McDonald’s, for example, have eliminated trans fats from all fried items such as French fries.
At the state and local level, some trans fat bans have already been imposed. In 2007, New York City was the first city to eliminate trans fats from restaurants. A year later, California became the first state to ban trans fats at fast food restaurants.
The changes appear to be working. According to the FDA, the amount of trans fat the average American eats per day dropped from 4.6 grams in 2003 to about 1 gram per day in 2012. Dr. Lichenstein noted that while there has been a decrease in the use and consumption of trans fats, Thursday’s FDA announcement suggests there’s still too much of it in our food supply.
“We have to acknowledge industry has made great strides in reducing the amount of trans fats, but the FDA made a determination that there’s still too much of it,” Dr. Lichtenstein said. “This is one of many steps that are going to create a healthier food environment.”
Nancy Brown, chief executive of the American Heart Association, said she hopes the FDA will go a step further and also revise the Nutrition Facts Panel found on processed food packaging to clarify how much trans fat people are actually eating.
Under existing FDA rules, food products with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat are rounded down and list zero grams of the ingredient, a policy Brown said “confuses and misleads consumers about the amount of trans fat they are actually eating.”
“Eating a healthy diet is a critical element of prevention, the key to conquering our nation’s No. 1 killer,” Brown added. “Taking artificial trans fat out of foods will help Americans achieve this goal and build lives free of heart disease. The association stands ready to support the FDA as they work to eliminate this unsafe ingredient from our food supply.”
For a sampling of what these changes could mean for how foods taste, click here.