FDA Trans Fats Ruling: Better Late than Never

November 12, 2013 in Foodland Chronicles, Health, Health Claims, Nutrition, Shelf Life by Joyce Bunderson

On Thursday, November 7, 2013, the FDA finally got around to saying that trans fats aren’t safe in foods. Ya think? The FDA gave notice that trans fats will be removed from the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list. It will be the second item to be removed from the list since the list was established in 1958; cyclamate was taken off in 1969. Certainly, I’m glad that the FDA is taking this step; I am more than a little sad that it’s taken so long. The LA Times and the Wall Street Journal both reported that the FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburt said that the ban would prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths due to heart disease each year.

  • Clear back in 1994, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to require food makers to list trans fats on the Nutrition Facts labels. Yes, we’ve known about the cardiovascular disease/trans fats connection for over 20 years. Yikes!!! Epidemiologist realized that trans fats contributed to heart disease since the early 1990s.
  • The Institute of Medicine reported in 2002 that “there is no safe level” of trans fats in foods.
  • Denmark required virtual elimination of trans fats from foods in 2003.
  • The same year that Denmark banned them, the FDA said that trans fats would have to be listed on food labels by 2006.
  • In 2006, the requirement for the food makers to list trans fats on the Nutrition Facts labels went into effect. But let’s not forget that if a SERVING had .5 grams or less, it could be listed at ZERO. So think about those tiny portion sizes of some products. It’s is definitely not a coincidence. I’ve mentioned the half-gram or less problem in a number of my articles over the years, here’s one.
  • KFC and McDonalds, among others stopped using trans fat containing oils after lawsuits pressured them. Starbucks joined the change in 2007 and Burger King in 2008.
  • New York banned them in restaurants in 2006 and California began the process in 2008. Wal-Mart gave its suppliers until 2015.

The New England Journal of Medicine reported in a 2010 article, that food manufacturers are finding ways to reformulate their products without trans fats. And the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2012 JAMA article that the amount of trans fats in blood samples fell 58% between 2000 and 2009. Data reported in 2012 in Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A showed a significant consumption reduction from 4.6 grams in 2003 to 1.3 grams in 2006.

What’s been done so far has helped; but we need to do better and we can do better; we cannot be complacent and sit back thinking that the food industry will continue to finish this project by itself. If you think that the decline will continue, you may want to consider reading the report in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease. It suggests that progress in reducing or removing partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) has slowed in recent years.

Even though I’m frustrated with the length of time this step has taken, I also appreciate the work of so many who worked doggedly to push it to this point. One person who certainly deserves mention is Dr. Kummerow, an emeritus professor of comparative biosciences at the University of Illinois. Now it’s not a news flash that “The use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in the American food supply has contributed to a national epidemic of coronary heart disease” and also contributes to diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease; but Dr. Kummerow has been saying it for a long time. In 2009 Dr. Kummerow wrote in a citizen’s petition: “Trans fat calcifies both the arteries and veins and causes blood clots.  Trans fat leads to the reduction of prostacyclin that is needed to prevent blood clots in the coronary arteries. A blood clot in any of the coronary arteries can result in sudden death.” The trans fat problem is more than just raising bad cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol) and lowering good cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol.

Most of the trans fats in our foods are created during the process of taking liquid oils and adding hydrogen under pressure – called hydrogenation or partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). This is done because it greatly increases the shelf life of foods. But as Dean Ornish medical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, has been quoted as saying: “Trans fats are good for the shelf life of foods but are bad for the shelf life of humans.” There are some trans fats found naturally in dairy products and meat, but by far most of it is a result of hydrogenating oils. Some of the most common foods containing trans fats are: hard margarine, vegetable shortening, frozen pizza, frostings, creamers, microwave popcorn, pancake mix, chocolate drink mix, cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, doughnuts, French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, hard taco shells, potato chips, corn chips, tortilla chips, candy, some desserts and even some breads.

Although the FDA’s final ruling won’t come out until after the 60-day comment period, the FDA made it clear that their goal was to remove trans fat from the food supply.

Food Navigator – usa reported that Professor Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD from Pensylvania State University, said that trans fats should be phased out in months not years. This article has lots of information about innovative ways that food processors have eliminated trans fats. In addition, Food Navigator reported that the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Michael Jacobson said that “Not only is artificial trans fat not safe, it’s not remotely necessary. Many companies, large and small, have switched to healthier oils over the past decade. I hope that those restaurants and food manufactures that still use this harmful ingredient see the writing on the wall and promptly replace it.” I can only imagine the triumphant and celebration at CSPI being the standard bearer over all these years.

In addition, to making products made with PHO’s have a longer shelf life, trans fats also make the texture better for many processed foods; not to mention that it’s quite inexpensive. We will; therefore, expect a fight before this is over. I want to celebrate this FDA announcement; but certainly I have fears that Big Food is not going down easily. In an article posted by Food Navigator-usa titled Lawyer: Expect Calls for extension of comment period on FDA crackdown on trans fats it’s pretty clear that my fears are justified. If you have any questions about the power of Big Food, follow this story. Venable LLP Food and Drug attorney Dr. John Moore even alludes to the approach. They will suggest that the best approach is to set a maximum threshold for trans fats (By the way, we’ve already tried that; don’t forget how well .5 grams per serving has worked out.) They’re second push is for it to take place over a number of years. Of course, public health already guesses this additional delay, remember what Professor Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD had to say above. And third, because the promise that the next generation of high oleic soybean oils is stable without partially hydrogenating it and it is projected to be available by 2016 – we should not accept the food industry’s tactic to further delay getting trans fats out of the food supply. Their “suggestion”, backed by lobbying pressure and legal action threats, will likely say, “give us until after 2016.” The lawyer even already suggests that it will take a few years to “ramp up” the soybean production, so they will need time.

The trans fats story is a poster child for continuing to keep reading about nutrition. We have miles to go in learning more about nutrition, but we do know some really key information. One thing that we know is that we can’t sit back and rely on Big Food to keep our best health interest as their top goal. Their shareholders are their priority. To protect our health and the health of our families, we need to continue to stay posted to reliable nutrition research. For today, Hip Hip Hooray for the FDA! Better late than never.