Wave Goodbye To Trans Fats

June 16th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

By 2018, the U.S. food supply will largely be free of all partially hydrogenated oils, a source of harmful oils known as trans fats, according to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announcement Tuesday. The plan, which was first announced in 2013, gives the food industry three years to eliminate artificial trans fats from their products. 

According to FDA estimates, eliminating trans fats, which are found in a wide variety of popular foods like frostings, frozen pizzas, cookies, and coffee creamers, from Americans' diets could prevent as many as 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease every year. The announcement caps a decades-long lobbying struggle by consumer advocates to ban trans fats, a stance backed with stacks of damning scientific evidence. 

"The FDA's action on this major source of artificial trans fat demonstrates the agency's commitment to the heart health of all Americans," said the agency's acting commissioner Stephen Ostroff in a statement. "This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year." 

Popularized in the 1950s, trans fats, which increased the stability and shelf life of oils, were initially thought to be healthier alternatives to saturated animal fats (this mindset can be traced to the emergence of margarine as a popular alternative to butter). Partially hydrogenated oils, created by heating vegetable oils into a solid containing hydrogen gas bubbles, are cheaper than things like butter, which only was a boon to the conception that they were safer. 

But in the decades since, a majority of scientists have concluded the oils to be unsafe, considering their tendency to clog arteries and raise levels of unhealthy cholesterol. 

The announcement Tuesday comes as the latest restriction to be placed on the use of trans fats in food. In 2006, the FDA required food manufacturers to label trans fats on their products, which, in tandem with a wary public, dramatically reduced the amounts of the oils in foods, and led major companies to divorce themselves from even carrying trans-fat foods; Walmart, surprisingly, does not carry goods with trans fats, and companies like McDonald's and Frito Lay have reached for substitutes in their food. The restrictions also add to a number of existing bans in places such as New York City, California, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, where bans exist for food sold by restaurants, the New York Times reports. Overall, the FDA estimates that since 2003, trans fat consumption fell by 78 percent. 

Despite broad consensus that trans fats are harmful drivers contributing to Americans' poor health, food industry trade groups have planned to petition the FDA to relax what they see as excessive cuts in a too-short time frame. "After reviewing the agency's tentative decision, [Snack Food Association] has concerns about the agency's suggestions to possibly revoke the generally recognized as safe status of [partially hydrogenated oils] and urges the agency not to finalize its tentative determination," one industry trade group wrote in a paper submitted to the FDA. 

The Guardian notes that the same paper asks FDA to delay the implementation of its decision for up to nine years, citing concerns that small companies would sink under new reformations, and that trans fats have "been shown to be only [a] contributor of a myriad of potential risk factors in chronic disease[.]" Other groups planning to petition include the American Frozen Food Institute, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. 

The GMA spokesman told the Times that his group was planning to petition, but cited a statement that said the ruling "minimizes unnecessary disruptions to commerce," while "provid[ing] time needed for food manufacturers to complete their transition to suitable alternatives[.]" 

As the Times notes, trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products, and they are produced in low levels in certain oils during manufacturing. Companies wishing to use trans fats can appeal to the FDA for specific uses, but they must prove their use is safe for consumption.