The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Tuesday that partially hydrogenated oils, the key source of trans fatty acids in the American diet, must be removed from food within three years.

The announcement comes two years after a tentative decision that partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) didn’t meet the guidelines to be considered “generally recognized as safe” under FDA guidelines.

“This determination is based on extensive research into the effects of PHOs, as well as input from all stakeholders received during the public comment period,” said Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a press release. 

trans fats

The decision was praised by medical experts across the country, citing known adverse health effects associated with trans fats. 

Dr. Steven Stack, president of the American Medical Association (AMA), commended the FDA for its decision. 

“With ample scientific research linking the consumption of trans fat to dangerous health effects, including heart attack and stroke, the AMA believes that removing trans fat from our nation’s food supply will help reduce the risk of preventable diseases and ultimately save lives,” he said. 

Food manufacturers will now have three years to remove PHOs from products unless they’re approved by the FDA.

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What Are Trans Fats?

Trans fats are found naturally in animal fats and as PHOs in baked goods. They’ve been used by food manufacturers because they’re inexpensive and increase a food product’s shelf life, stability, and texture, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The problem is that these fats raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol. Increased LDL cholesterol is a risk factor for coronary heart disease, the number one killer in the United States. The CDC estimates avoiding trans fat could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths a year. 

In 2006, the FDA required food manufacturers to disclose trans fat content in nutritional labels. Some states have already banned its use in restaurants and other places, resulting in a 78 percent decrease in its consumption from 2003 to 2012, according to the FDA.

Are people really eating only one cookie or five fries? The servings often add up and the consumer ends up with far more trans fats in their diet than they realize.
Rebecca Blake, Mount Sinai Beth Israel

Still, the CDC states, the average American consumes about 1.3 grams of trans fats a day. While trans fat levels can vary, they’re highest in cookies, frozen pies and pizzas, and savory snacks, such as fried foods. 

“It is true that trans fats are the worst kind for our health. Although many manufacturers have done a good job of decreasing the amount of trans fats in their products, very few have actually eliminated them altogether,” said Rebecca Blake, director of clinical nutrition at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City. 

Blake said even foods labeled “trans fat free” can have up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.

“But are people really eating only one cookie or five fries? The servings often add up and the consumer ends up with far more trans fats in their diet than they realize,” she said. 

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Improving the Safety of Food

The FDA uses a system that allows food manufacturers to include ingredients in foods and cosmetics as long as there are no known health effects associated with them. These products receive the designation “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS.

The underlying problem, as was found with trans fats, is these food additives may not be tested or reported to the FDA. Last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted an investigation and found 275 chemicals used in food were never reported to the FDA.

Until today, trans fats were on that list.

“But just like trans fats, manufacturers have self-certified over 1,000 other chemicals as safe that may be in our food — without FDA review or approval. That puts public health at risk,” said Erik Olson, director of the health and environment program at the NRDC. “[The] FDA should do its own safety reviews of these chemicals and provide more transparency so the public can learn whether we are eating potentially harmful chemicals, and what actions the agency is taking to make sure that our food is safe.”

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