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Safety

Good-bye, Trans Fat

Regulation: FDA effort to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils draws mixed response

by Britt E. Erickson
November 14, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 46

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Credit: Shutterstock
FDA is taking action to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils in processed foods.
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Credit: Shutterstock
FDA is taking action to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils in processed foods.

Public health groups hail the Food & Drug Administration’s recent move to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils—the biggest dietary source of artificial trans fat—from processed foods. But some manufacturers worry that FDA might extend the approach to other food ingredients that concern health activists but have been deemed safe by industry.

FDA announced earlier this month that partially hydrogenated oils will no longer be considered “generally recognized as safe,” citing risks of heart disease and evidence that alternative ingredients exist.

If FDA finalizes that decision, the food industry will, for the first time, have to show that partially hydrogenated oils are safe in order to use them in processed foods.

The agency has solid evidence associating the consumption of such oils with an increased risk of heart disease, so “it could, in effect, mean the end of artificial, industrially produced trans fat in foods,” says Dennis M. Keefe, director of FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety.

Consumers began avoiding trans fat more than a decade ago on the advice of medical experts, and in response, manufacturers dramatically reduced the amount of partially hydrogenated oils used in processed foods. But the artery-clogging fats can still be found in many products, including frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, and cake frosting.

Public health groups welcome FDA’s move, emphasizing that artificial trans fat is not safe and not necessary.

Food manufacturers, on the other hand, are concerned about the possibility of FDA using the same regulatory approach on other food ingredients that are currently under scrutiny, such as sugars, sodium, and caffeine. “I would certainly expect FDA to use the approach with respect to other ingredients that are considered safe based on industry self-assessments,” says Mitchell Cheeseman, who led FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety before joining the law firm Steptoe & Johnson in 2011.

Cheeseman also warns that FDA’s action could trigger lawsuits against food manufacturers that have known about the dangers of partially hydrogenated oils for many years but failed to warn consumers.

FDA is accepting comments on its decision until Jan. 7, 2014.

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