The Obama administration is expected to all but ban trans fat in a final ruling that could drop as soon as next week, killing most uses of an ingredient that has been put in everything from frozen pizza to Reese’s Pieces but since deemed harmful to human health.
The agency may create some very limited exemptions, but the ruling could force food companies to cut trans fat use beyond the 85 percent reduction already achieved over the past decade — a key piece of the Obama administration’s broader agenda to nudge Americans toward a healthier diet.
The food industry believes low-levels of trans fats are safe. Industry leaders have banded together behind-the-scenes to craft a food additive petition that will ask FDA to allow some uses of partially hydrogenated oils, such as in the sprinkles on cupcakes, cookies and ice cream. The industry hasn’t shared details, but officials maintain the uses will represent “very limited amounts.”
For more than 60 years, partially hydrogenated oils have been used in food products under the status generally recognized as safe, which does not require FDA’s approval. But since the 1990s, reams of studies have linked trans fat consumption to cardiovascular disease, causing somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 premature deaths before the industry started phasing it out.
In late 2013 the Obama administration issued a tentative determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not generally recognized as safe. The move sent shock waves through the food industry, which has already brought down average consumption from more than 4 grams per day to about 1 gram per day — an exodus largely fueled by mandatory labeling imposed a decade ago. Scores of popular products, including Oreos and Cheetos, have quietly dropped partially hydrogenated oils over the years, but it remains an ingredient in many products, including Pop Secret microwave popcorn, Pillsbury Grands! Cinnamon Rolls and Sara Lee cheesecake, as well as some restaurant fryers and commercial bakery goods.
If FDA sticks to its guns in its final determination — and most in food policy circles assume it will — the agency will be taking a firm step toward pushing out more of the remaining uses of trans fat.
“This is a massive win for public health,” said Sam Kass, the former senior adviser for nutrition at the White House and executive director of Let’s Move!, noting that FDA has estimated removing trans fat could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and some 7,000 deaths.
“There are few targeted actions you can take in this space that have that kind of direct impact,” said Kass. He said he expects FDA will ultimately allow negligible uses of trans fat, because there’s no science that shows such levels are harmful.
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