November 8, 2013

Goodbye, trans fats

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced yesterday that it is looking to have 'partially hydrogenated oils' (PHOs) classified as food additives, meaning they couldn't be used in food without authorization from the FDA.  PHOs, according to the FDA's press release, are the primary dietary source of trans fats in food.  Having the PHOs classified as a food additive would mean those wishing to use them would need to meet a pretty heavy burden of proof of benefit to get approval, so if approved this new policy could pretty much eliminate trans fats.

Trans fats, in case you didn't know, are the things that make certain foods taste good. What kinds of food? Well, let's see: crackers, cookies, frozen pies, other baked goods, microwave popcorn and other snacks, frozen pizza, creamers, refrigerated dough products, ready-to-use frosting, vegetable shortening, margarine... there's some good, convenient, tasty stuff there in the list which could contain trans fat. I admit to enjoying many of the items on the list. Sadly, as much as they make things yummy, the pesky trans fats actually can raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. 

Trans fat content has been included on food labels for several years, and consumption has decreased over time, by almost 80% in the past decade, because of increased education, the labeling, local restrictions (such as those in New York City), and actions by the food industry to reduce trans fats in foods or the oils used to cook them.  For example, many of the more prominent restaurant chains have already eliminated trans fats; for some smaller restaurants and stores, it might be harder and more costly to make the transition.

Ultimately, the hope is that further restrictions on PHOs and trans fats will help save lives. As FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg notes,
The FDA's action today is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat.  Further reduction in the amount of trans fact in the American diet could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year - a critical step in the protection of Americans' health.
The projected benefits of this change may not seem huge in the overall scheme of things, but every little bit helps. There should also be some reduction in health care costs, which can have implications beyond those directly affected.

As with most government regulations, there's a comment period, during which interested parties can chime in.  Already, some in the industry are starting the conversation.  For example, the Giant Eagle grocery store chain, with stores in the Pittsburgh and Cleveland areas, issued a statement noting that they  
...work diligently to ensure that our stores follow all relevant Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules and regulations.  We are aware of today's FDA announcement regarding their preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not "generally recognized as safe" or "GRAS" for use in food, and are awaiting further detail from the FDA before reviewing the potential impact on our locations during the coming years. (emphasis added)
The FDA and the food industry need to be reasonable about implementation, should this proposal go forward.  For example, it could be a 'from this day forward' rule, so that nothing new can have trans fats, but food already on the shelves could be allowed to be sold for a certain period of time. Another alternative would  be some kind of buy-back period, where the FDA could purchase inventory to get it off the shelves, and keep manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers from losing everything on these currently legal products.  On the industry side, aggressive efforts could be made to speed up the transition.

I hope the comment period gives people on both sides a chance to come up with a viable plan. Kudos to those who have fought for this for so long; and kudos as well as to the food industry for the progress they've already made, willing or unwillingly, to get these fats out of their products.  

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