[ Watch the Video: FDA Wants To Trim The Fat, Literally ]
Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
By now, you’ve probably seen the news about the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) waging war on trans-fats. The preliminary determination states that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), being the primary dietary source of artificial trans-fat in processed foods, are not “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. And the FDA claims it arrived at this decision based upon available scientific evidence and the findings of expert scientific panels.
The US is not charting new territory on this one, though. Effective policies enacted in Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Brazil, Denmark and South Korea have, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), been important at decreasing trans-fat consumption over the previous two decades. The WHO is advocating for complete elimination of trans-fat from the global food supply.
This preliminary determination will now be followed by a 60-day comment period in which the FDA plans to collect additional data and to gain input on the time potentially needed for food manufacturers to reformulate products that currently contain trans-fat, should the determination be finalized.
“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, MD. “The FDAs action today is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat. Further reduction in the amount of trans fat 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.”
Partially hydrogenated oil is not new on the American food landscape. PHO, or shortening, has been a mainstay in many kitchens since as early as 1911. To form PHO, hydrogen is infused into liquid oils to make solid fats. Its benefit is an increase in a product’s shelf life as well as providing flavor to foods.
Over the past two decades, many food manufacturers, citing public opinion on the matter, have taken steps to either limit or eliminate the use of trans-fat in their products. And New York City, in 2007 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, enacted legislation that partially banned PHOs and spreads in their restaurants.
Reacting to the FDAs preliminary determination, Mayor Bloomberg said, “The groundbreaking public health policies we have adopted here in New York City have become a model for the nation for one reason: They’ve worked. Today, New Yorkers’ life expectancy is far higher than the national average, and we’ve achieved dramatic reductions in disease, including heart disease.” Bloomberg continued, “The FDA deserves great credit for taking this step, which will help Americans live longer, healthier lives.”
According to the independent Institute of Medicine, there is no known health benefit from the consumption of trans-fat and there is no safe level of consumption of artificial trans-fat. A consequence of consuming trans-fat is a marked increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol. Unsafe LDL levels have been shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease.
There are several sources of naturally occurring trans-fats, however. Among them are: milk, butter, cheese, beef, lamb, pork and chicken. However, in these instances, it is usually found in small amounts and is not as harmful as artificial trans-fat.
As the public consciousness has been made more aware of the dangers of PHOs, many food manufacturers and retailers have been voluntarily decreasing the use of them in their products. However, many popular products still contain them. Fans of certain desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, margarines and flavored coffee creamers may be dismayed by the FDAs decision. However, many manufacturers have already proven that these products can be made without trans-fat.
In an unrelated survey conducted by the Pew Research Center between October 30 and November 6 of this year, respondents were asked their opinion regarding the abolition of the use of trans fat by restaurants. According to the Pew website, their findings raise questions about the role the government should play in addressing broad public health concerns. Of the 996 adult respondents, 44 percent were in favor of the policy while 52 percent opposed the idea.
It was in 2006 that the FDA began requiring trans-fat content information on the Nutrition Facts label of foods. Since that time, there has been a significant reduction in the intake by American consumers, falling from 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to about 1 gram per day in 2012.
“One of the FDAs core regulatory functions is ensuring that food, including all substances added to food, is safe,” said Michael Taylor, the FDAs deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. “Food manufacturers have voluntarily decreased trans fat levels in many foods in recent years, but a substantial number of products still contain partially hydrogenated oils, which are the major source of trans fat in processed food.”
After the 60-day comment period, the FDA will review all of the submissions made to them. If a final determination is made in favor of the new policy, PHOs would be considered “food additives” and could not be used in food unless authorized by regulation. This possible new policy will only affect PHOs and will not apply to foods that have the naturally occurring trans-fat.
“If we finalize our conclusion, then we are inviting comments from industry on what would be an appropriate phaseout,” said Taylor. “The timeline would be based on the comments we get. Given the public health impact, we want to move as quickly as we can.”
THE OTHER SIDE
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), in a prepared statement said, “Through our efforts at product reformulation and the development of suitable alternatives, trans fats that are not naturally occurring have been drastically reduced in the food supply. Since 2005, food manufacturers have voluntarily lowered the amounts of trans fats in their food products by over 73 percent.” The GMA represents more than 300 food, beverage and consumer product companies.
Not to be outdone, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) touted the “tremendous strides” the industry has taken to reduce and/or eliminate trans fats. Joan McGlockton, NRA vice president of industry affairs and food policy said, “We plan to discuss the impact of this proposal on the industry and submit comments, and we will continue to work with our members and the manufacturing supply chain to address any new federal standards that may arise out of this process.”
FDA commissioner Hamburg, supported by the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, stated this week’s move is “an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat.”
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest stated, “Artificial trans fat is a uniquely powerful promoter of heart disease, and today’s announcement will hasten its eventual disappearance from the food supply. Not only is artificial trans fat not safe, it’s not remotely necessary.” Jacobson continued, “Many companies, large and small, have switched to healthier oils over the past decade. I hope those restaurants and food manufacturers that still use this harmful ingredient see the writing on the wall and promptly replace it.”
While waiting for a final determination on this new policy, concerned consumers are encouraged to choose products that have the lowest combined amount of saturated fat, cholesterol and trans-fat. However, under the current regulations, a company is able to claim their food has 0 grams of trans-fat if the food contains less than 0.5 grams. Therefore, read the label to see if hydrogenated oil is listed in the ingredients as that may be indicative of a small amount of trans-fat per serving.
That regulatory loophole has drawn the attention of Nancy Brown, the CEO of the American Heart Association, who hopes the FDA addresses it by revising their regulation on food labels for foods that are 100 percent trans-fat free.
In an interview with Time Magazine, Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and author of the new book “Disease Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well” offered a tone of caution with regard to what manufacturers might develop to replace outgoing PHOs. “That question is the potential devil in the details,” says Dr. Katz. “There are other ways to manipulate fat, and we have to be careful we don’t wind up with another bad invention.”