US: FDA gives food industry 3 years to phase out artificial trans fats
Partially hydrogenated oils, those universally despised sources of trans fat, have finally been more or less banned by the FDA. This is less newsworthy than it first appears, though: manufacturers have been phasing them out for a while and they only remain in a handful of products.
BASED on a thorough review of the scientific evidence, the US FDA announced this week that it has finalised its determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not "generally recognized as safe" or GRAS for use in human food.
In 2013, the FDA made a tentative determination that PHOs could no longer be considered GRAS and was finalising that determination after considering public comments.
Since 2006, manufacturers have been required to include trans fat content information on the Nutrition Facts label of foods. Between 2003 and 2012, the FDA estimates that consumer trans fat consumption decreased about 78% and that the labeling rule and industry reformulation of foods were key factors in informing healthier consumer choices and reducing trans fat in foods.
While trans fat intake has significantly decreased, the current intake remains a public health concern. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that consumption of trans fat be as low as possible while consuming a nutritionally-adequate diet.
"Studies show that diet and nutrition play a key role in preventing chronic health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and today's action goes hand-in-hand with other FDA initiatives to improve the health of Americans, including updating the Nutrition Facts label," said Susan Mayne, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
"This determination is based on extensive research into the effects of PHOs, as well as input from all stakeholders received during the public comment period."
The FDA has set a compliance period of three years. This will allow companies to either reformulate products without PHOs and/or petition the FDA to permit specific uses of PHOs. Following the compliance period, no PHOs can be added to human food unless they are otherwise approved by the FDA.
The food industry has been using partially hydrogenated oils for decades, though many such as Kellogg, Kraft Foods and ConAgra Foods have been phasing them out. Many baked goods such as pie crusts and biscuits as well as canned frosting still use partially hydrogenated oils because they help baked goods maintain their flakiness and frostings be spreadable. As for frying, palm oil is expected to be a go-to alternative, while modified soybean oil may catch on as well.
"I don't know how many lives will be saved, but probably in the thousands per year when all the companies are in compliance," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The FDA estimates the ban will cost the food industry $6.2-billion over 20 years as it reformulates products and substitutes ingredients. The benefits will total $140-billion during the same time period, mostly from lower spending on health care.
Food companies have been switching to mixtures of palm and coconut oils or palm and soybean oils, the combination used in tubs of Country Crock margarine made by Unilever.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Washington-based lobby group for food companies, said in a statement the three-year period for compliance "provides time needed for food manufacturers to complete their transition."
The association also said it will petition the FDA for approval of uses of low levels of partially hydrogenated oils and plans to show they are as safe as naturally occuring trans fat.
While Jacobson said palm oil as an alternative isn't ideal because it contains saturated fat, it's still better than trans fat.
"Trans fat raises the bad cholesterol and lowers the good cholesterol a little bit," he said."Saturated fat only raises the bad cholesterol."
About 70 percent of palm oil is produced in Malaysia and some also comes from Indonesia and South America. The US market size for palm oil is 1.2 billion kgs annually, he said. He expects that to increase by half a billion pounds a year once trans fats are eliminated.
Modified soybean oil is also an option. Monsanto is testing an oil called Vistive Gold made from soybeans that have been genetically modified to make it heart-healthier and good for frying without the need to hydrogenate it, said Sarah Vacek, soybean quality traits manager at Monsanto. Restaurants will be Vistive Gold's main target.
"It's been in the works for over a decade," Vacek said. "We are pre-commercial right now. We are anticipating a full commercial launch in 2016."
Source: FDA, Bloomberg, AFP