In a move it says will prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks and thousands of deaths, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday issued a final decision that gives the food industry three years to phase out partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of trans fat in processed foods.
The FDA's declaratory order (pdf), based on a rule first proposed in 2013, states that the agency has made a "final determination" that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are no longer "generally recognized as safe" for any use in human food. According to the FDA, foods that commonly contain trans fat—a byproduct of PHOs—include: processed baked goods, microwave popcorn, coffee creamers, and ready-to-use frostings.
Scientists and public health experts generally welcomed what is effectively a ban on trans fat, but some warned that the agency's action wasn't strong enough.
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"We applaud the FDA for taking an important step that would eventually eliminate partially hydrogenated oils—the primary source of trans fats in Americans’ diets—in our food," said Renee Sharp, Environmental Working Group's (EWG) director of research. "But we’re disappointed that the FDA did not set a speedy deadline. What’s worse, the FDA has failed to close the labeling loophole that allows processed food manufacturers to avoid full disclosure."
The agency's rule, EWG explains, "appears to retain a loophole that allows food processors not to disclose trans fat content of less than half a gram per serving. That means the label of an item containing .49 grams of trans fat can falsely say 'zero' trans fat or 'trans fat free.' People who eat a package containing several servings can unknowingly consume several grams of this dangerous substance."
According to EWG, FDA memos show that the food industry has developed at least 200 uses for partially hydrogenated oils, and industry officials have said that 80 percent of these uses don’t require disclosure of the presence of trans fat because of the half-gram loophole.
What's more, according to news reports, the Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association, which lobbies for food companies, has begun preparing a petition seeking approval for limited use of trans fats in certain products, such as decorative sprinkles.
Bloomberg's reporting on the rule described it as a boon for palm oil, which can be used as an alternative to PHOs. However, groups like the Rainforest Action Network have previously warned that using palm oil as a stand-in is "the wrong approach," given palm oil's ties to rainforest destruction and orangutan extinction.