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FDA to ban trans fats

Using the GRAS regulations, the US Food and Drug Administration has declared trans fats not safe for human consumption. Will consumers even notice?

Trans fats – great for shelf life and for boiling French fries but horrible for heart health – will be banned by the Food and Drug Administration, the agency announced on Thursday.

The unhealthy partially hydrogenated oils had been subject of labeling since 2006, noted the Huffington Post in its story today. This act alone led to a significant decrease in consumption of trans fats as food manufacturers sought healthier options. In 2003, the average American intake of trans fats was 4.6 grams per day, according to the FDA, and that number has fallen to about 1 gram per day in 2012.

But trans fats still exist in some processed foods, from baked goods to microwave popcorn, frozen pizza to ready-to-use frostings. Trans fats also naturally occur in a few foods, such as some meats, and there they will remain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a further reduction of trans fat in the food supply can prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year.

Because the mere labeling of trans fats has led food makers to shy away from using it, the biotech industry has taken the hint and put up tens of millions of dollars to oppose labeling of GMO ingredients. That strategy has paid off as initiatives in California in 2012 and in Washington state this week both failed to win approval by voters.

The official regulatory death knell was made possible through the GRAS process – trans fats, the agency has declared, are no longer Generally Recognized As Safe.

“FDA can act when it believes an ingredient is, in fact, not GRAS. And that's what the agency's preliminary determination is doing now with partially hydrogenated oils,” the agency noted in its statement today. “A Federal Register notice was published on Nov. 7, 2013, announcing the preliminary determination that PHOs [partially hydrogenated oils] are not GRAS, which includes the opening of a 60-day public comment period.

“If FDA makes a final determination that PHOs are not GRAS, the agency and food industry would have to figure out a way to phase out the use of PHOs over time. To help address this concern in an appropriate manner, the Federal Register notice calls for comment on how long it would take the food industry to phase out its use of PHOs.”

Studies into the cholesterol-altering properties of trans fats began at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands in 1990. In a series of studies until 2003, researchers discovered that coronary artery disease risk is reduced most effectively when trans fatty acids and saturated fatty acids are replaced with cis unsaturated fatty acids. The largest reduction was seen with unhydrogenated oils, such as canola, soybean and olive oils. These studies helped change the scientific and regulatory consensus on trans fats over the course of two decades.

The trans fats story has been a rare opportunity for food processors to develop and market nutritionally advanced oils. The key to successful launches has been to maintain both hydrogenation’s ability to extend product shelf life by reducing oxidation as well as its superior structural functionality in finished baked goods. At the same time, new oils had to eliminate trans fats’ untoward cardiovascular health effects. As the cost for these oils is as much as double compared to hydrogenated trans fats, expense has also a consideration.

But food science marches on, and consumers have not even noticed the elimination of trans fats in the diet.

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