FDA Imposes Restrictions on Trans Fats

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The FINANCIAL — The Food and Drug Administration imposed far-reaching restrictions on the use of partially hydrogenated oils, a primary source of trans fats in processed foods, saying the ingredient should no longer be assumed to be safe, according to Nasdaq.

The regulator told food companies on June 16 they will have to seek its approval beginning in 2018 before they can put partially hydrogenated oils in microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, pie crusts and a host of other processed items.

While not a ban, the FDA’s move marks the first restriction on partially hydrogenated oils at the national level. It first proposed the action in 2013.

Trans fats have been linked to heart disease, stroke and several other debilitating health issues. They have been shown to raise levels of bad cholesterol while also lowering good cholesterol. The most recent set of federal dietary guidelines, released in 2010, encouraged consumers to eat as few trans fats as possible, and the Institute of Medicine said in 2002 that there is no such thing as a “safe level” of the ingredient.

Since 2006, food companies have been required to identify the amount of trans fat in their products on nutrition labels. Between 2003 and 2012, the amount of trans fat consumed by Americans fell nearly 80%, the FDA said. Nevertheless, even the current intake levels remain a source of concern, it said.

“This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year,” said Stephen Ostroff, the FDA’s acting commissioner.

The FDA has set a three-year compliance deadline for the new restrictions, giving food companies time to seek permission to continue using partially hydrogenated oils, or PHOs, or find alternative ingredients.

A group representing food companies including General Mills Inc. and Mondelez International Inc. will seek permission in coming days to continue using PHOs in specific circumstances.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said the three-year compliance deadline “minimizes unnecessary disruptions to commerce.” It will argue “the presence of trans fat from the proposed low-level uses of partially hydrogenated oils is as safe as the naturally occurring trans fat present in the normal diet.”

Tuesday’s move does not settle the debate over trans fats. The FDA will continue to try to identify the levels at which PHOs can be safe as it reviews the food industry’s petition.

“I suspect the FDA will allow only truly minor uses, like in sprinkles used on cupcakes,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has pushed for tighter restrictions on trans fats.

Small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats are found in meat and dairy products. For many years, artificial trans fat was thought to be healthier than butter and other animal fats.

Most trans fat is formed through a process in which hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, causing the oil to become solid at room temperature. This partially hydrogenated oil is used to lengthen the shelf life of food while enhancing taste and texture. PHOs are considered cheap and easy to use, and several restaurants and fast food chains use them in deep-fat fryers.

New York City has banned its restaurants from using trans fat and McDonalds Corp. has abandoned PHOs for a blend of canola, corn and soybean oils.

Several food items, however, including General Mills Inc.’s Bisquick mixes and Tyson Food Inc.’s Sara Lee pie crusts, still contain a couple of grams of trans fat per serving.

General Mills and Mondelez said they significantly reduced their use of PHOs and will continue to do so. A Tyson spokesman did not return a request for comment.

Food companies have had a hard time removing trans fats entirely due to a lack of suitable alternatives that match PHOs’ cost, sustainability, texture and ability to keep mixes from sticking to pans.

A spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers group said “the low-hanging fruit has been taken.”

In some cases–like with Mondelez’s Ritz crackers and General Mills’ Betty Crocker cake mixes–the manufacturers have reduced the PHOs so that the food has less than 0.5 grams grams of trans fat per serving, allowing them to list zero grams, though trace amounts remain.


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