The Food and Drug Administration has finalized its determination that the use of artificial trans fats in human food is not generally recognized as safe (GRAS), and ordered food manufacturers to remove them from their products within the next three years.
Although small amounts occur naturally in meat and dairy products, trans fat is primarily an artificial component in food, with the most common variety being partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). Used to prolong shelf life and enhance flavor, PHOs are found in a wide range of processed foods, including snacks such as potato chips and microwave popcorn, frozen meals and refrigerated dough products such as biscuits, margarine, and ready-to-use frostings. Initially thought to be a healthier alternative to saturated fats, the medical evidence that they are more dangerous than any other type of fat is at this point overwhelming; trans fats have been linked to a significant increase in the risk of coronary heart disease, obesity, memory loss, and other health problems.
The past decade has seen a number of steps taken to combat the negative influence of PHOs in food. In 2006, the FDA required that all food manufacturers include trans fat content on their products’ nutrition labels. For many manufacturers, this additional layer of visibility has been reason enough to eliminate trans fats from their products. The requirement is not without its own issues, however, as companies are allowed to indicate that a product has 0 grams of trans fat if it contains less than 0.5 grams per serving, a condition that many consider to be a loophole.
In 2013, the FDA made a preliminary determination that PHOs are non-GRAS. After two years of investigation and research, the decision was finalized on June 17 of this year. This finalization carries with it a mandate that unapproved PHOs must be removed from all food products no later than June 18, 2018. Food manufacturers are allowed to petition the FDA for the right to include small amounts of trans fats in their products following this date, but must be able to prove that their use will not pose a health risk. Foods that do not receive this approval cannot continue to use PHOs, and must be reformulated before the defined phase-out date.
The response to this decision has been overwhelmingly positive. Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that pushed for the ban, sees this step as a critical success in improving consumer health: “This is the final nail in the coffin of trans fats…In terms of lives saved, I think eliminating trans fats is the single most important change to our food supply.”