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Removing Trans Fat from the Food System: The FDA Ban and What’s Next

posted on Wed, Jul 22 2015 12:48 pm by Mathew Swinburne

Last month the Food and Drug Administration took an important step to protect the health of the country by initiating a ban on the use of trans fatty acid as a cooking agent in foods. Many of us have undoubtedly seen “FDA bans trans fat” in numerous news headlines.

The FDA’s move is a big deal because trans fats are linked to myriad negative health effects, including increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, and memory loss. The move against trans fats is expected to prevent 10,000 to 20,000 coronary events a year and save between 3,000 and 7,000 lives.

How does this ban work? First, the FDA did not ban all dietary trans fat; the agency focused its attention on partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the major source of trans fats in our food supply. PHOs are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oils to alter the physical and chemical properties. They are a staple in the food industry because they provide a desirable taste and texture to products, extend the shelf life of processed food, and are relatively inexpensive when compared to animal-based fats like butter or lard. PHOs can be found in a wide variety of processed foods, from crackers and cookies, to microwave popcorn and frozen pizza. PHOs contain a high level of trans fats; on average they are 25 to 45 percent trans fatty acids. Trans fat also occurs naturally in the dairy products and meat of ruminant mammals like cows, goats, and sheep, and is a by-product in processing of other food oils. However, these products contain minute levels of trans fat, and as a result are not affected by the ban.

Second, to ban PHOs, the FDA determined that they are no longer “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS). This means PHOs cannot be used in food unless a manufacturer petitions the FDA for a specific use and the FDA determines that this use is safe. A successful petition is unlikely given that the Institute of Medicine recommends that trans fat consumption should be “as low as possible.”

So what does this mean for local and state governments who have already taken actions to regulate trans fat? For example, New York City banned the use of trans fat in restaurants in 2007. In 2008 Baltimore prohibited the use of PHOs in foods at food service facilities, including restaurants, coffee shops and cafeterias. That same year, California banned PHOs in restaurants. The FDA’s recent determination to ban trans fat in all foods should not conflict with these existing county, city and state regulations.

The food industry has until June 18, 2018 to comply with the FDA ban, so until it takes effect, consumers need to pay attention to food labels. Starting in 2006, the FDA required food and dietary supplement labels to indicate the amount of trans fat in the product. However, a food label that lists 0 grams of trans fat doesn’t mean that the food is trans fat free. The regulations allow food producers to label a product as containing 0 grams of trans fat if it contains less than .5 grams per serving. As a result, concerned consumers should also check a product’s ingredient list for PHOs.

For more information on the FDA’s trans fat ban, the Network for Public Health Law has created an issue brief that explores additional aspects of this important regulatory action.

This post was developed by Mathew Swinburne, J.D., Senior Staff Attorney, the Network for Public Health Law--Eastern Region at the at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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