FDA Nearing Ban of Trans Fats

The agency moves to reclassify partially hydrogenated oils as food additives.

After years of consideration, FDA appears ready to ban the sale of artificial trans fats. The agency stated that artificial trans fats “are not generally recognized as safe for use in food” and that reducing their presence in the U.S. diet may prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year. FDA’s decision comes at a time, however, when many food manufacturers have already voluntarily removed trans fats from their products.

The biggest culprits in the artificial trans fat market are “partially hydrogenated” oils, including soybean oils, palm oils, coconut oils, and cottonseed oils. These ingredients are delivered to mass market in food products such as peanut butters, cookies, chips, frostings, shortenings, and margarines. Food manufacturers, however, have increasingly shown they can formulate comparable products without using trans fats.

FDA has considered the notion that trans fats are unhealthy at least since 1999, when the agency recognized research that diets high in trans fats could promote increases in LDL cholesterol, a major risk factor for heart disease. Years later, in 2005, the Institute of Medicine provided FDA with an opinion that trans fats provide no known health benefits and that there is no established safe level for their consumption. FDA continued to review new scientific data for years, as some countries and even U.S. municipalities set their own restrictions on trans fat presence in food products.

If FDA finalizes its opinion as it is written, partially hydrogenated oils will be considered “food additives,” which would require new authorization for use if desired by manufacturers. FDA has opened a 60-day comment period to collect input from manufacturers as to how much time they will need to reformulate products currently sold with artificial trans fats.  The agency is especially concerned with helping small-size manufacturers make an easy transition. While FDA expects initial monetary losses for manufacturers, it estimates the long-term monetary benefits will be far greater.

FDA’s decision, of course, does not affect the sale of trans fats that occur naturally in foods, such as meat and dairy.