By Richard Lenti
Heralded as “one of the most important lifesaving actions” the Food and Drug Administration could take, the federal agency announced it no longer considers partially hydrogenated oil safe and will require the food industry to gradually phase out artificial trans fats.
It’s a move that could eventually lead to strict curbs or a prohibition on artificial trans fat in processed food, which by some estimates could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year.
“While consumption of potentially harmful artificial trans fat has declined over the last two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg. “The FDA’s action is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat.”
Trans fats are widely considered the worst kind for your heart. Like saturated fat, they raise LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, which promotes heart disease. But unlike saturated fat, trans fats also lowers levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol that protects against heart disease.
Trans fat may also promote heart disease in other ways, such as by damaging the lining of blood vessels.
The fats are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid, which is why they are also known as partially hydrogenated oils. They are used both in processed food and in restaurants, often to improve the texture, shelf life or flavor of foods.
But scientists say there are no health benefits to trans fats.
In 2006, the adoption of mandatory trans fat labeling forced many manufacturers to reformulate their products. As result, trans fat intake by American consumers declined from 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to about 1 gram per day in 2012.
At the time of its peak use, Harvard epidemiologists estimated that trans fat was responsible for between up to 228,000 coronary heart disease events per year, causing upwards of 50,000 deaths annually.
However, trans fat can still be found in some processed foods, such as certain desserts, microwave popcorn products, frozen pizzas, margarines and coffee creamers.
“Artificial trans fat is a uniquely powerful promoter of heart disease,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
“Not only is artificial trans fat not safe, it’s not remotely necessary. Many companies, large and small, have switched to healthier oils over the past decade. I hope that those restaurants and food manufacturers that still use this harmful ingredient see the writing on the wall and promptly replace it.”
The FDA hasn’t set a timeline for the phase-out, but says it will collect comments for two months from the food industry, health professionals, and the public before determining how long it will take. Depending how easy it is to find a substitute, different foods may have different timelines.
If the FDA finalizes its preliminary determination that they are no longer safe, trans fats would be considered “food additives” and could not be used in food unless authorized by regulation.
The phase out would not affect trans fat that naturally occurs in small amounts in certain meat and dairy products.
“One of the FDA’s core regulatory functions is ensuring that food, including all substances added to food, is safe,” said Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods. “We want to do it in a way that doesn’t unduly disrupt markets.”
Though he applauds the FDA for “letting science, and not politics, shape its proposed policy,” Jacobson encouraged the agency to move quickly, noting it’s been nine years since the CSPI first petitioned the FDA to ban trans fats.
“Six months or a year should be more than enough time, especially considering that companies have had a decade to figure out what to do.”
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