FDA To Food Companies: This Time, Zero Means Zero Trans Fats

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Microwave popcorn containing trans fats from November 2013. The Grocery Manufacturers Association says the industry has lowered the amount of trans fat added to food products by more than 86 percent. But trans fats can still be found in some processed food items. (Reuters/Landov)
Microwave popcorn containing trans fats from November 2013. The Grocery Manufacturers Association says the industry has lowered the amount of trans fat added to food products by more than 86 percent. But trans fats can still be found in some processed food items. (Reuters/Landov)

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced that food companies have three years to remove all trans fats from processed food. The long-expected move is aimed at making food more healthful.

The FDA says the evidence is clear: Trans fats increase the risk for heart attacks and strokes. And so it has determined that trans fats are not "generally recognized as safe" for use in food anymore. The agency is giving food companies a hard deadline to stop using trans fats in processed foods.

Trans fats were once considered a healthy alternative to ingredients like lard. But evidence has mounted that the opposite is true.

In 2006, the FDA started requiring food companies to disclose the amount of trans fat in processed food. And many food companies stopped using the substance in anticipation of the FDA's ban. The Grocery Manufacturers Association says the food industry has already reduced its use of trans fats by more than 86 percent.

As a result, the amount that people consume has plummeted. Even Crisco is now made without partially hydrogenated oils.

But the FDA says people are still consuming too much. Many food products have tiny amounts of trans fats since the FDA allows companies to put zero grams on the label even if there's up to 0.5 grams of trans fat in the food.

And other products with higher levels of the oils appear on this Trans Fat Wall of Shame Pinterest board, curated by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

As Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist, epidemiologist and dean of the nutrition policy and science school at Tufts University, told us, "There's really not any other fat that has this constellation of harmful effects" — from raising bad cholesterol and inflammation to lowering good cholesterol and harming blood vessels.

Consumer groups hailed the ban, with some saying it's long overdue. "We applaud the FDA for taking an important step," said Renee Sharp, director of research at the Environmental Working Group, in a statement. But she lamented that the three-year deadline wasn't speedy enough.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement the deadline "provides time needed for food manufacturers to complete their transition to suitable alternatives and/or seek food additive approval." But, the group added, it will be petitioning the FDA to allow some low-level uses of trans fats in certain products.

"The FDA should continue to minimize Americans' exposure to artificial trans fat and subject the industry's petition to a rigorous and skeptical test," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been lobbying for the trans fat ban for years. "If FDA approves it for use as a food additive, it must do so only in the tiniest of amounts."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's the end of the line for trans fats. The Food and Drug Administration announced today that food companies have three years to remove all trans fats from processed foods. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to talk about how trans fats, which were once considered a healthy alternative to fats like butter, turned out to be bad for us. Hey there, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, Audie.

CORNISH: So this sounds like it's an all-out ban. Am I reading that correctly?

AUBREY: Yes. What the FDA is saying is that trans fats, which are listed on food labels as partially hydrogenated oils, are not safe. The FDA is removing what's known as the GRAS status, which stands for generally regarded as safe, because they say the evidence is clear that trans fats are bad for us. I spoke to Tufts University's Dariush Mozaffarian who explained just how bad.

DARIUSH MOZAFFARIAN: They raise the bad cholesterol. They lower the good cholesterol but also raise inflammation, worsen the health of blood vessels. There's really not any other dietary fat that has this constellation of harmful effects.

CORNISH: So given what we've just heard, sounds like this was not unexpected.

AUBREY: That's right, not a surprise here. In fact, the writing has been on the wall for trans fats since about 2006. That's when the FDA began requiring food companies to disclose the amounts of trans fats in processed foods. And since that time, partially hydrogenated oils have really begun to disappear from the food supply. In fact, the Grocery Manufacturers Association says that the food industry has already reduced its use of trans fats by about 85 percent.

CORNISH: So let's go back in time here. Remind us where trans fats came from, why it took us so long to realize that they were bad for us.

AUBREY: Sure. Well, when trans fats entered the food supply way back in the early 1900s, no one had a clue that they were bad for us. In fact, industrial trans fats were touted as a real technological innovation. Their original purpose was to take really inexpensive, plentiful vegetable oils and make them into a solid fat that could be used for baking. So these fats that stayed solid at room temperature were very helpful to the packaged food industry. And by midcentury, they were found in everything from, you know, crackers to cookies and lots of snack foods. But decades later, after trans fats had become basically ubiquitous in the food supply, that's when studies started to show these bad effects.

CORNISH: So what's the industry's response to today's announcement?

AUBREY: Well, many of the products that once contained trans fats are now completely free of partially hydrogenated oils. This is true even of Crisco products. Manufacturers have moved to alternatives, such as palm oil. Now, at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is a trade group made up of about 300 food companies, released a statement today basically saying, hey, we're on board. We will use the next three years to complete this transition to alternatives. But they're also poised to ask the FDA for some exceptions. They may try to make the case that, you know, hey, at very, very low levels, trans fats in certain kinds of products are OK.

CORNISH: And you mentioned one alternative - palm oil - but I understand that has its own problems, right?

AUBREY: Well, the case against palm oil is really about how it is produced. There's been clearcutting of forests in Indonesia to produce palm oil, and those issues of the ecological footprint are ongoing but being addressed.

CORNISH: So in the meantime, what are the products that still contain trans fats?

AUBREY: Well, packaged cookies, crackers still contain tiny amounts. Brands of microwave popcorn, packaged cake icings, snack chips. If you see seasoned chips, the trans fats are used to get the seasoning to stay caked onto the chip. But the bottom line here is that there's already way less trans fat in the food supply than there used to be.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey on the announcement today from the FDA that it will require food companies to phase out trans fats almost entirely within three years. Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.