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Many food companies working to trim last of trans-fat

Trans-fats are often, but not always, found in cakes, prepared icings, cookies, pies, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarine, spreads and refrigerator dough products.
Trans-fats are often, but not always, found in cakes, prepared icings, cookies, pies, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarine, spreads and refrigerator dough products.Triphena Wong

Companies that make some of America's favorite cakes, cookies, microwave popcorn and frozen pizzas may soon be under pressure from the Food and Drug Administration to make those foods healthier.

The message from many of those food makers is: We're trying, but we're not completely there yet.

"We've actually been working on this for many years," Campbell Soup spokeswoman Carla Burigatto said in an interview. "The vast majority of our portfolio is labeled zero-grams trans fat."

Their company's Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, she said, removed its partially hydrogenated fat about a decade ago. 

The rush is on after the FDA said it would take first steps to severely restrict partially hydrogenated oils in foods, citing scientific reports that say trans fats are no longer “generally recognized as safe” in processed foods. Food manufacturers began adding artificial trans fatty acids, or partially hydrogenated oils, to products in the 1950s to increase the shelf life and flavor stability of foods, according to the FDA. 

Since 2006, the FDA has required food companies to include trans-fat content on their nutritional labels. They are often, but not always, found in cakes, prepared icings, cookies, pies, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarine, spreads and refrigerator dough products. If the label says partially hydrogenated oil, that indicates trans fat is present.

"Providing consumers with high quality, great tasting products is a priority for us," read a statement from Mondelēz, which once faced a lawsuit before it removed the trans fat from its Nabisco-brand Oreo cookies. "In our U.S. product portfolio, all of our cookies and crackers are labeled as 'zero grams trans fat' per serving."

Several companies issued similar statements in response to the FDA plan.

"General Mills will be very responsive to this new request for comment from the FDA. Partially-hydrogenated oil (PHO) has always been considered safe for use by FDA, and by the food industry as well. This is a major development, and food companies will need to quickly consider and respond to this request," the company said in a statement sent to CNBC. "General Mills had already been working quickly to reduce the use of PHOs in products as the science began to shift on trans fats – and more than 90 percent of our U.S. retail products are already labeled as zero grams trans fat. But we will also need to move to respond quickly to FDA on this question, and we will."

Nestlé echoed that sentiment.

"We fully support the efforts of the FDA to improve public health," Nestlé spokeswoman Hannah Coan said in a statement. "The large majority of Nestlé foods and beverages do not contain partially hydrogenated oils (added trans fats) as we have been actively working to remove them from our foods. We have made good progress and will continue our journey to remove all remaining partially hydrogenated oils."

Tyson Foods said it changed cooking oils in 2007 to remove trans from breaded poultry products. "This was done with an eye toward zero impact on taste or texture," Tyson spokeswoman Krista Cupp said in a statement to CNBC. "While Tyson chicken products are naturally low in trans fat, it can be found in certain added ingredients such as cooking oils, which led to the reformulation of the company's breaded poultry portfolio."

Hormel also said it was close to the target.

"As many of our products are protein-based pork and turkey items, more than 97 percent of our branded retail portfolio does not contain partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). During the past few years we have been working with our suppliers to further eliminate PHOs from the few remaining products that contain them," Hormel said in a statement.

Those efforts are the norm for the industry, according to a statement from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 businesses in the consumer packaged goods industry and related fields.

"Since 2005, food manufacturers have voluntarily lowered the amounts of trans fats in their food products by over 73 percent. Consumers can be confident that their food is safe and we look forward to working with the FDA to better understand their concerns and how our industry can better serve consumers." 

The same is true for restaurant companies, which have also followed the trans-fat free trend over the past several years.

"The restaurant industry is committed to taking a proactive role in addressing today's food and healthy living challenges as evidenced by the tremendous strides the industry has voluntarily taken to reduce or eliminate artificial trans fats from menu items," said Joan McGlockton, vice president of industry affairs and food policy for the National Restaurant Association.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday issued a statement pointing out he was the first to push through such a ban.

"Seven years ago we became the first city in the nation to prohibit restaurants from using trans fats. Since then, at least 15 states and localities have followed suit and banned trans fats — and more than 10 fast food chains have eliminated trans fats entirely. Today, we're greatly encouraged that the FDA proposed measures that would virtually eliminate the artery-clogging and unnecessary ingredient from our nation's food supply," he said. Bloomberg's health commissioner at the time, Dr. Thomas Frieden, is now the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

—By CNBC's Amy Langfield. Follow her on Twitter at @AmyLangfield.