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The FDA’s Proposed Partial Ban on Some Trans Fats

Health Letter, January 2014

When the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in November that it was proposing to ban certain types of trans fats, it sent media outlets buzzing. Yet some reports did not get the story quite right.

Read on to learn about three common misconceptions regarding the proposed ban on trans fats and find out how such a ban would affect the average consumer.

Misconception No. 1: The FDA ban will eliminate trans fats from my diet.

This is not quite accurate. Trans fats are found in many foods containing animal products (dairy products and meat) as well as all refined edible oils. Unless you were to become vegan and forgo all meat and dairy products, it would be extremely difficult to eliminate all trans fats from your diet.

The FDA simply proposes a ban on partially hydrogenated oils, the primary source of industrially produced trans fats. Companies purposefully add trans fats to these oils – such as partially hydrogenated soybean or cottonseed oil – to affect the taste, texture and shelf life of foods, including baked goods, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza and pies, shortening, ready-to-use frosting, and stick margarine.

The Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) tests the trans fat content in popular foods and has posted a “Trans Fat Wall of Shame” on its website, www.cspinet.org. In July 2013, CSPI listed Long John Silver’s “Big Catch” meal as the worst restaurant meal in America, containing an astonishing 33 grams of trans fat, or about 16 times the daily limit proposed by the American Heart Association. Fortunately in August 2013, following CSPI’s assault on the “Big Catch,” Long John Silver’s announced it would be switching to trans-fat free oil.

The trans fat content of partially hydrogenated oils is quite high: an average of 25 to 45 percent of this oil is made up of trans fats, as opposed to less than 2 percent in other oils. Experts generally agree that reducing trans fats, even if you cannot eliminate them, helps avoid heart disease. That means the FDA’s move to prevent companies from adding these fats to food is a step in the right direction.

Because partially hydrogenated oils contain so much trans fat and other oils so little, the FDA’s ban is likely to lead to a large drop in the amount of trans fat found in food regulated by the FDA. Manufacturers are not required to report trans fat on a food’s nutrition labeling unless the amount in each serving of the food is above 0.5 grams. This means that most, if not all, food nutrition labels will read “zero trans fat” once the ban is in place.

The proposed ban is also not absolute: Partially hydrogenated oils could still be used in foods with prior FDA approval. However, given the known safety risks of trans fats, it seems unlikely that the FDA will grant prior approval to a partially hydrogenated oil that contained a high amount of this substance.

Misconception No. 2: The proposed ban will make my favorite treat “illegal.”

This is another exaggeration. More likely, the ingredient list on your favorite food will change. Partially hydrogenated oils are often used as a cheap way to modify the taste, texture and shelf life of processed foods. But many companies have been able to effectively remove trans fat from their foods by identifying substitutes for partially hydrogenated oils. Both fully hydrogenated and nonhydrogenated oils contain relatively low trans fat content and will not be affected by the FDA’s proposed ban. Like Long John Silver’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Burger King and Unilever (the world’s largest maker of margarine) have all found substitute oils. General Mills, owner of Pillsbury and Betty Crocker, has already taken trans fat out of 90 percent of its U.S. products and pledged to eliminate the rest in response to the FDA’s announcement. However, many of the companies that claim zero trans fat in their food labels still include small amounts of partially hydrogenated oils. (As mentioned above, a manufacturer need not report the trans fat unless the amount rises above 0.5 grams.) This means it is possible that the taste, texture, price or shelf life of some processed foods could change if the ban is finalized.

Misconception No. 3: Trans fats are just unhealthy, they are not “unsafe.”

The truth of this statement depends on whether death from heart disease can be considered a “safety” risk. Trans fat is consistently linked with increased levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease. Experts also agree that the effect of trans fat on heart disease risk is even stronger than the effects of other types of unhealthy fat, including saturated fat, long known for its health risks. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting your intake of trans fats to less than 2 grams per day (for a person who eats 2,000 calories per day).

How common is trans fat in the American diet? The average American intake of trans fats has fallen dramatically since 2003 when the FDA first started requiring trans fat to be reported in nutrition labels. Nevertheless, the FDA estimates that top consumers of trans fats still eat an average of 5.4 grams per day, more than twice the AHA-recommended upper limit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that further reducing the amount of trans fat in the food supply could prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year.

What is next for the proposed rule?

Given that many foods still contain partially hydrogenated oils, the FDA may see concern and criticism from industry groups. Yet most of the feedback from these groups so far has been positive – probably because many companies began phasing out trans fats years ago in an effort to appeal to consumers. Many companies, like Long John Silver’s, had already responded to pressure from consumers and consumer advocates, and declared they will be phasing out trans fats prior to the FDA announcement. Companies may be reluctant to speak out strongly against the proposed ban and earn a reputation as champion of unhealthy fat.

One group that supports the proposed ban is CSPI, the group responsible for shaming Long John Silver’s. CSPI has been the prime force behind the push to get FDA to regulate trans fats in the American diet. The FDA’s 2003 decision to require trans fat reporting in food labels was made in response to a CSPI petition sent years earlier. CSPI also pushed for the current proposed ban on partially hydrogenated oils, petitioning the FDA to make this move in 2004.

No one knows when the FDA’s proposed rule will become final. The public will have until March 8, 2014, to comment on the rule, but the final rule may not be issued until far beyond the comment period, and the FDA can choose an even later date for the rule to take effect.

To give an example of how long this process might take: After the CSPI petitioned the FDA in 1994 to require trans fat reporting in food labeling, the FDA did not issue its proposed rule until 1999 and did not publish a final rule until 2003. Moreover, the final rule did not actually take effect until 2006, nearly three years after it was published. This means, unfortunately, that it will probably be years until the FDA’s rule is implemented. Until then, consumers will have to look out for themselves by checking for trans fat and partially hydrogenated oils on the nutrition labeling of foods.

Members of the public, including everyday consumers, can weigh in on the issue by submitting comments online at http://www.regulations.gov. To locate the trans fat rule, search for the docket number FDA-2013-N-1317.