Nov. 08--The Food and Drug Administration launched a proposal Thursday to remove nearly all artery-clogging trans fats from the food supply -- a move that, if approved, will affect everything from Girl Scout cookies to microwave popcorn.
The government is specifically targeting partially hydrogenated oils, a major source of artificial trans fat found in processed foods and baked goods.
"Trans fat provides no known health benefits," FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg said Thursday.
The FDA's decision to go after man-made trans fat comes 14 years after the agency started taking a closer look at the dangers of trans fatty acids -- which increase a person's risk of heart disease. Medical experts applauded the FDA's announcement.
"This is going to reduce disease, which clearly is going to benefit the population," said Dr. William Batty, an internist with St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton.
Thursday's announcement is the latest and most extreme crackdown on trans fat. In 2006, the FDA required food manufacturers to list trans fat on product nutrition labels. In 2010, California became the first state to ban the use of trans fat at restaurants. Bakeries in the state were forced to comply a year later. New York City, Baltimore and Montgomery County, Md., have imposed similar restrictions.
The FDA has been monitoring the effect, and studies show that regulation is working. In 2012, Americans consumed about 1 gram of trans fat per day, compared with 4.6 grams in 2003, the FDA said.
But agency officials say they can do better by going directly after the culprit: partially hydrogenated oils.
"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," Hamburg said.
The ban could mean headaches for some of the nation's biggest processed food suppliers. The FDA estimates the initial cost of removing the oil from the food supply at about $8 billion.
For years, food manufacturers have engaged in a process called partial hydrogenation, which packs hydrogen atoms into standard vegetable oils. This creates a stable oil that is ideal for high-temperature frying. It also creates a longer shelf life for baked goods such as cookies, pies, biscuits and crackers.
But trans fats also are a proven killer, wreaking havoc on the human cardiovascular system. Trans fats contribute to heart disease by elevating the level of "bad" LDL cholesterol and lowering the level of "good" HDL cholesterol. Clogged, hardened arteries dramatically increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Reading a food label at the grocery store, it's easy to get confused. A package of Mother's Peanut Butter Gauchos cookies has hydrogenated rapeseed, cottonseed and soybean oil, but also partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Fully hydrogenated oil isn't as bad as partially hydrogenated, but neither one is good.
"Those hydrogenated oils are the bad fats," Batty said.
The health campaign against trans fats began in earnest in 1993, after researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health published a damning study. In May 2004, the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to declare that trans fats are no longer safe.
On Thursday, the agency did that.
"It's the beginning of the end," said Center for Science in the Public Interest spokesman Jeff Cronin.
The 2010 California law did nothing about processed foods. Trans fats are still in numerous products, from microwave popcorn and frozen pizzas to breakfast cereals and trail mix. The FDA's labeling requirement allows a company to say it has zero grams of trans fat as long as it has less than 0.5 grams per serving.
But the cumulative effect from multiple servings in multiple products could elevate levels of a fat that doctors say serves no nutritional purpose.
"It's very misleading to the public, and if people don't read the label, they might think this is heart-healthy because it doesn't have trans fats, when actually it does," Batty said.
Reformulating recipes can be tricky. It took McDonald's years to find a zero-trans-fat cooking oil that wouldn't alter the flavor of its popular french fries.
Finding oil alternatives is "a challenge," said Dan Yost, an executive at Bridgford Foods in Anaheim.
Under pressure from consumers and California's ban, the local frozen food and bread supplier took steps before 2010 to eliminate trans fat from its products. The company's frozen breads and microwaveable foods are sold in supermarkets, school districts and convenience stores across the country.
Yost said he's glad Bridgford tackled the trans fat issue early. Other manufacturers, he said, will have "a big mountain" to climb when it comes to tweaking recipes.
Ventura Foods in Brea began scouting for oil alternatives in 2000 and now provides trans fat-free oils in its line of edible oils, salad dressings, shortenings and margarines sold to food distributors such as Sysco. The Brea company said it is reviewing the FDA's notice to fully understand its effect.
Some varieties of Girl Scout cookies -- Caramel deLites, Lemonades and Thin Mints -- list partially hydrogenated oils on their nutrition labels.
"The trace amounts of trans fat in our enrobed cookies are the result of using oils to keep the coating from melting off the cookies," said ABC Bakers, one of two Girl Scout cookie suppliers. "We are actively researching replacements that will provide the same benefits."
The public and industry have 60 days to comment on the FDA's proposal.
"I think it's an incredible decision, and one that has needed to be made for quite some time ... as long as they don't replace it with something just as bad," said Melody Calvert, 27, of Corona.
If the FDA's proposal becomes permanent, man-made trans fats will become a thing of the past. But shoppers should still read labels closely to avoid too much saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium, says Dr. Patricia Riba, an Orange County pediatrician who specializes in nutrition and obesity.
"Trans fats are just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "We really need to get away from these processed, manufactured foods."
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Original headline: FDA looks to trim trans fats
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