Commentary

FDA Bans Use Of Trans Fats After 2018

The Food and Drug Administration Tuesday told food marketers that they have until 2018 to eliminate trans fats from all products sold in the U.S., determining, after a “thorough review of the scientific evidence … that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not ‘generally recognized as safe’” for human consumption.

The FDA “estimated that the action would cost about $6 billion to put into effect but would save about $140 billion over 20 years in health care and other costs,” Sabrina Tavernise reports for the New York Times. It also has estimated the move “could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.”

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Manufacturers will “have to pay to research and test new ingredients plus reprint labels and repackage products, which could cost up to $200,000 per product, estimates Roger Clemens, a pharmacology professor at the University of Southern California,” Hadley Malcolm reports for USA Today.

“It's not a cheap endeavor,” Clemons tells Malcolm. “The flaky texture of a croissant [or] of a pie crust, are really expectations. [It] takes a lot of food science to understand the chemistry of those interactions so you can duplicate it without compromising the product.”

Then there are those rainbow sprinkles that we use for “added excitement” on our already sugar-laden cupcakes and scoops of ice cream. Turns out that some of them are loaded with more than carbs and banning trans fats in the production process is a controversial issue in some quarters.

“The food industry has begun preparing a petition seeking approval for limited use of trans fats in certain products, such as decorative sprinkles, the industry's trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said” report Reuters’ Toni Clarke and Ransdell Pierson. The GMA “declined to give details about its petition and what other products were involved, but expressed satisfaction with the FDA's overall action,” they write. 

“[The] FDA has acted in a manner that both addresses FDA's concerns and minimizes unnecessary disruptions to commerce,” the GMA says in a statement. It also points out “food and beverage companies have already voluntarily lowered the amount of trans fat added to food products by more than 86%.” 

“The story of trans fat’s rise and fall tells us a lot about marketing, the power of the food industry and American food culture,” writes Sarah Kaplan in an informative backgrounder for the Washington Post. “But it’s also a testament to our tenuous understanding of nutrition, a realm of science that can feel as baffling and changeable in real life as it was in Woody Allen’s imagination.” 

The latter reference is to a scene in Allen’s 1973 movie “Sleeper” that Kaplan recounts in her lede where the protagonist asks for wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk after two centuries of being frozen. Turns out they’re bad for you while deep fat, hot fudge and steak are the healthy choices of the day.

“Yes. Trans fats were once portrayed as healthy — or at least, the healthier alternative to other oils,” Kaplan continues, and the advertising for Procter & Gamble’s Crisco “partially hydrogenated” oil reflected it (“Better than butter for cooking”). And when saturated fat came under attack by everybody including the Center for Science in the Public Interest in the 1980s, it was touted as a “perfect solution.”

But the CSPI has been warning about the dangers of trans fats for more than 20 years now and its executive director, Michael Jacobson, tells the Post’s Roberto A. Ferdman that yesterday’s edict is “probably the single most important change in our food supply, if not in decades then ever. This action alone will save many thousands of lives each year.”

In a news release on the CSPI website, Jacobson says the decision “gives companies more than enough time to eliminate the last of the partially hydrogenated oil that is still used in foods like microwave popcorn, biscuits, baked goods, frostings, and margarines,” while linking to a “Trans-Fat Wall of Shame” it has posted on Pinterest (needless to say, there are no click-to-buy buttons).

The release also quotes Michael R. Bloomberg, who pushed for a 2006 ban of the use of trans fats in restaurants in New York City while he was mayor. 

“Like most public health measures, at first the phasing out of artificial trans fats was controversial,” Bloomberg says. “But as soon as New Yorkers understood that taking trans fats out of a dish didn't impact the way their favorite foods tasted, and restaurant owners understood that the ban didn't hurt business, the measure was widely accepted. In fact, the trans fat ban became a point of pride for many restaurants.”

Indeed, as it has for many food products that will need to find a different way to differentiate their benefits.

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