FDA Announcement Signals Eventual End to Artificial Trans Fat
CSPI Praises Historic Development in Fight Against Heart Disease
The Food and Drug Administration has made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oil is no longer generally recognized as safe for use in food. The move, which paves the way for a prohibition, or at the very least, strict curbs on the fake fat's use, was hailed by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest as a major step in protecting consumers from artificial trans fat, a potent cause of heart disease.
"Artificial trans fat is a uniquely powerful promoter of heart disease, and today's announcement will hasten its eventual disappearance from the food supply," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "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 manufacturers that still use this harmful ingredient see the writing on the wall and promptly replace it."
Though small amounts of trans fat occur in meat fat and milk fat, most of the trans fat in the food supply has come from industrially produced partially hydrogenated oils. Like saturated fat, trans fat raises one's LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, which promotes heart disease. But unlike saturated fat, trans fat lowers one's HDL, or the "good" kind of cholesterol that protects against heart disease. Trans fat may also promote heart disease in other ways, such as by damaging the endothelial cells that line blood vessels.
In 1993, soon after trans fat was first strongly linked to heart disease, CSPI urged the FDA to require trans fat labeling, and in 1994 formally petitioned the agency to require a line for trans fat on Nutrition Facts labels. FDA mandated that labeling in 2003. But because the scientific evidence of trans fat's harmfulness was so solid by then, in 2004 CSPI called on the agency to revoke partially hydrogenated oil's status as a safe food ingredient altogether.
CSPI has also supported local regulations and state laws curbing use of artificial trans fat in restaurants, shamed cafeterias at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and major hospitalsinto switching to safer frying oils, and filed lawsuits against KFC and Burger King. Others used litigation to get Kraft and McDonald's to eliminate trans fat. And the Long John Silver's chain recently announced that it will transition to trans-fat-free oils by the end of the year, after CSPI criticized the huge amounts of trans fat in many of that chain's offerings. Church's Chicken also announced it will transition to trans-fat-free oils by December 24.
At the time of peak artificial trans fat use, Harvard epidemiologists published research in the New England Journal of Medicine estimating that trans fat was responsible for between 72,000 and 228,000 coronary heart disease events per year. Harvard’s Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department, estimated that trans fat was causing upwards of 50,000 deaths annually. Reflecting the decreased use of trans fat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that artificial trans fat was causing as many as 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 deaths annually.
The adoption of mandatory trans fat labeling in 2006 spurred many food manufacturers to reformulate their products. Typically, the reformulated products were lower in saturated fat as well as trans fat. To this day, though, many varieties of microwave popcorn, frozen pies, cookie dough, biscuits, frosting, and other foods still use the discredited fake fat. Diamond Foods' Pop Secret Premium Butter Popcorn has 5 grams of trans fat per serving—and it's not uncommon for people to have more than one serving of popcorn at one sitting. Varieties of ConAgra's Marie Callender's pies have 3.5 or 4 grams per serving, and Pillsbury Grand! cinnamon rolls with icing have 2 grams of trans fat per serving.
Most major restaurant chains abandoned partially hydrogenated oils in the mid- to late-2000s. A handful of chains, such as Carl's Jr., Hardee's, and Popeyes, have menu items that contain some partially hydrogenated oil, at least in localities where they're not required by law to use a healthier alternative. A serving of Hashbrowns at Popeyes, for instance, contains 10 grams of trans fat and Carl's Jr.'s Cinnamon Raisin Biscuit contains 3.5 grams, according to the companies' websites.
"Getting rid of artificial trans fat is one of the most important life-saving measures the FDA could take," Jacobson said. "Thousands of heart attack deaths will be prevented in the years ahead. The FDA deserves credit for letting science, and not politics, shape its new proposed policy on artificial trans fat."
The FDA is opening a 60-day comment period for the industry, health professionals, and the public to weigh in on its determination.
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).