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What the FDA’s Trans Fats ‘Phase Out’ Really Means

Trans fats must be nixed from American food in three years.

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The Food and Drug Administration announced its plan today to phase out trans fats from the American food industry. Two years ago, the FDA acknowledged that trans fats were probably unsafe for human consumption, but until now, there was no national policy on their use in the food industry. This new decision, designed to be implemented over the next three years, was motivated by nearly two decades of research showing major health risks associated with the food additive. In its announcement, the FDA noted that artificial trans fats "are not 'generally recognized as safe' (GRAS) for use in human food." More bluntly, they're very bad for you.

What are Trans Fats?

When nutritionists discuss trans fats (or trans fatty acids), they are generally referring to artificial trans fats, produced by adding hydrogen to solidify liquid vegetable oils. On food labels, these are usually identified as "partially hydrogenated oils" (PHOs).

Simply put, food manufacturers and preparers use trans fats because they are cheap and tasty. Food made with partially hydrogenated oil is less likely to spoil, so you'll find it in packaged foods like microwave popcorn, crackers, and sprinkles. The oil can be used multiple times in deep fryers, so it is commonly found in chain restaurants — in dishes like Burger King's touted Chicken Fries (see sidebar). But even in fast-food restaurants, the use of trans fats has been slowly dropping over the last decade.

Why is the FDA phasing them out?

Scientists did not understand the side effects of trans fats until the mid-1990s. Studies show that eating artificial trans fats raises your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowers your good cholesterol (HDL). High cholesterol increases risk of heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, and diabetes. Trans fats consumption has also been linked to certain kinds of cancer.

When it became clear that they may pose significant health risks, the FDA adopted labeling regulations: If food has less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving, the maker can label it as containing "0 grams of trans fat." Many foods are now proudly emblazoned with a "0g of trans fat" label. But 0.49 grams can add up quickly when consuming multiple servings, and up to 80 percent of trans fats containing foods can use the "trans fats free" label due to this loophole. That, in addition to the fact that most restaurants are not required to indicate the use of trans fats, means people are likely consuming far more trans fats than they realize. (Today's FDA ruling does not address this labeling loophole, so consumers should continue to be wary of that 0g label.)

In 2009, Dr. Fred Kummerow, a then 95-year-old heart disease researcher, filed a petition with the FDA requesting that it ban trans fats in the food industry. His reasoning was straightforward: "I put the petition in because the FDA had not responded to the evidence published in medical journals that trans fats were dangerous," he tells Eater. "The FDA has been set up to protect the population... And if food has been overwhelmingly shown to be not necessary and actually causes damage, then it should be taken out of the diet." The FDA was left with two options: "They can make a decision endorsed by the American Medical Association to leave trans fats out of the diet, or they can go along with industry, who want it because it's helpful in food manufacturing."

When the FDA failed to respond within six months, its own self-designated "reasonable amount of time," Kummerow filed a lawsuit. In 2013, the FDA tentatively declared that trans fats additives were not "generally recognized as safe" under the conditions of their intended use. (There are some naturally occurring trans fats in meat and dairy products, but scientists are not sure yet whether these have the same ill effects as artificial ones.) In the past two years, no forward progress has been made on this issue, and Americans have been happily consuming trans fats. Six years after Kummerow's original lawsuit, the two parties agreed to a deadline for a definitive FDA ruling on the matter: June 21, 2015. Today's announcement came a week early.

Ilustration: nld/Shutterstock

What would a phase-out mean?

Several European countries, including Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland, have already virtually banned trans fats through heavy regulation. Traditionally, the United States lags far behind the European Union in steps taken to improve food safety (as is the case with antibiotics in meat), but this ruling brings us more or less up to speed with those policies. While this is the first federal policy, it is not the first time the U.S. had addressed the issue.

In 2008, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg made headlines for banning trans fats in New York City restaurants. Though pre-packaged foods were still laden with trans fats, there was a significant reduction in the amount consumed by New York City diners. But the impact did not stop there. Several large restaurant chains, including McDonald's and Chick-fil-A, adopted the policy nationwide. Other states and cities followed. When the FDA made its "tentative" ruling in 2013, many expected the ban to become a nationwide policy. But the current FDA decision is vastly different from Bloomberg's ban in that it does not directly influence American restaurants — there will be no monitoring of food served to customers.

Theoretically, this ruling would mean that the food industry must phase out the use of partially dehydrogenated oils and eliminate sale of such products in America. In practice, however, this ruling is not a ban. It's really an official statement that trans fats are not safe for consumption — with several built-in loopholes that may potentially invalidate it. FDA spokesperson Marianna Naum explains, "The fact that PDO would not be GRAS does not mean a universal ban because, at that point, if industry wanted to use them, they would need to file a food additive petition with the agency. The agency would review that petition to determine whether the proposed use would be considered safe or not... It's not a ban in the sense that they are never going to be allowed to use them again. What it is saying is that you can no longer put it in a product without approval from the agency." Essentially, the FDA may have declared partially dehydrogenated oils unsafe for human consumption, but companies can still use them. They just need to ask for permission first.

So, despite the fact that the FDA has now officially declared partially dehydrogenated oils as unsafe for human consumption, any company can apply for a waiver and possibly obtain permission to use the additive. This allows the FDA and the U.S. to look good while still, potentially, allowing certain members of the food industry to carry on without changes.

Ilustration: nld/Shutterstock

When will this happen?

According to today's FDA announcement, "food manufacturers will have three years to remove partially hydrogenated oils from products." So if you feel strongly that your food just won't be the same without the particular cholesterol-raising powers of trans fats, there's still plenty of time to stock up on cupcake icing and non-dairy creamers.

But not everyone agrees with the phase-out. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) points out that, with no intervention from the FDA, the food industry has already reduced its use of trans fats by more than 85 percent. Baylen Linnekin, lawyer and executive director of Keep Food Legal, also opposes the ban, citing a lack of scientific evidence to support it. "The government is not the best arbiter of what one's diet should be, nor should they be," he explains a few days before the FDA announcement. "It's a freedom of choice issue. It doesn't mean that we should be swimming in Big Gulps and Twinkies, but it means that those choices should be protected in the same way that we protect a person's right to grow produce or buy raw milk or shop at a farmer's market. It is about food freedom." GMA has said it will file a petition against the ruling.

It also bears mentioning that there is no real guarantee that the food industry and restaurants won't just replace partially dehydrogenated oils with something similarly unhealthy. Trans fats are hiding in other additives, and oils high in saturated fat have been used as substitutions — these also increase LDL cholesterol.

But assuming this FDA decision stands in the face of a GMA counter petition, it will undeniably reduce the amount of trans fats consumed by the American public. "To the people who say the FDA shouldn't be involved in what they should be eating: that's absolutely wrong, that's their job," says Kummerow, the now-101-year-old researcher responsible for finally forcing the FDA's hand on trans fats. He reflects on the idea of a full trans fats phase-out from the American diet: "It's about time."

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