FDA moves to phase out trans fats from food, citing health concerns

The Food and Drug Administration has declared war on trans fats. The government agency said Thursday it would require food makers to gradually phase out artificial trans fats — the artery-clogging ingredient found in crackers, cookies, pizza and many other baked goods.

The change could potentially prevent 20,000 heart attacks a year and 7,000 deaths, said FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

While the amount of trans fats consumed by Americans has dropped dramatically over the last decade, they still “remain an area of significant public health concern,” Hamburg said during a press conference. 

The FDA hasn’t yet set a time table for sweeping trans fats from the market. "We want to do it in a way that doesn't unduly disrupt markets," said Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods. Still, the "industry has demonstrated that it is by and large feasible to do."

Trans fats are considered harmful because they increase risks for heart disease by both raising bad cholesterol levels (LDL) and lowering good cholesterol (HDL). In 2006, the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to include trans fats on nutritional labels, and in 2007, New York City banned trans fats from restaurants. Food marketers have been gradually going trans-fat-free in recent years -- McDonald's switched to zero-trans fat cooking oil in its iconic french fries in 2008

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg celebrated the FDA's proposal. “Seven years ago we became the first city in the nation to prohibit restaurants from using trans fats,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “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.” 

The FDA announced that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not “generally recognized as safe” for use in foods.

The agency has opened a 60-day comment period to collect additional data and to get input on how much time it might take for food manufacturers to reformulate products that currently contain artificial trans fats.

In the meantime, Hamburg said, “consumers can make healthy choices by checking trans fat levels on the nutrition facts panel on the back of processed food packages and avoiding those with trans fats.”

There are many brands now with no or low levels available to consumers, she added. 

The independent Institute of Medicine has already concluded that trans fats provide no known health benefit and that there is no safe level of consumption of artificial trans fat, Hamburg said. Additionally, the IOM has recommended that Americans keep their consumption of trans fats as low as possible while consuming a nutritionally adequate diet.

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. 

The FDA decision "comes from decades of research on the effects of artificial trans fats on heart health," said NBC News diet and health editor Madelyn Fernstrom. "While estimates of dietary intake of trans fats among Americans has decreased nearly 75 percent in about a decade, there remain concerns about the inclusion of any trans fats in foods."

In a statement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association said the industry has dramatically reduced the amount of trans fats in food products. 

“Through our efforts at product reformulation and the development of suitable alternatives, trans fats that are not naturally occurring have been drastically reduced in the food supply," according to the statement. “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 FDA has previously estimated that the average American eats 4.7 pounds of trans fats a year. The American Heart Association recommends that people should consume fewer than 2 grams of trans fats a day.