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FDA Moves to Ax Artificial Trans Fat in Foods

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the main dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS, for use in human food. The agency is giving food manufacturers three years to remove PHOs from their products.

"The FDA's action on this major source of artificial trans fat demonstrates the agency's commitment to the heart health of all Americans," noted FDA Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff. "This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year."

In 2013, the FDA tentatively determined that PHOs could no longer be considered GRAS. The agency finalized that determination after considering public comments. Since 2006, manufacturers have been required to include trans fat content information on the Nutrition Facts panels of food products. Between 2003 and 2012, consumer trans fat consumption decreased by about 78 percent, according to the FDA, which attributes the decline in large part to the labeling rule and industry reformulation of foods.

"The eventual elimination of artificial trans fat from the food supply will mean a healthier food supply, fewer heart attacks and heart disease deaths, and a major victory for public health," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "The final determination made … by the Food and Drug Administration gives companies more than enough time to eliminate the last of the partially hydrogenated oil that is still used in foods like microwave popcorn, biscuits, baked goods, frostings and margarines."

Meanwhile, Jeff Stier, senior fellow and risk analysis division director of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank, decried the move as "a horrible idea," adding that the FDA’s 2013 assertion that further reducing trans fat in the U.S. diet could prevent another 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 heart disease deaths annually was "preposterous," and that "markets responded to consumer demand and have already lowered the amount of trans fat in food." Continued Stier: "The FDA's scary assumptions are based on wobbly models piled on top of wishful thinking and doused with junk science."

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) said it was "pleased that FDA has acted in a manner that both addresses FDA's concerns and minimizes unnecessary disruptions to commerce," noting that the three-year compliance period "provides time needed for food manufacturers to complete their transition to suitable alternatives and/or seek food additive approval.

"Food and beverage companies have already voluntarily lowered the amount of trans fat added to food products by more than 86 percent, and will continue lowering PHO use in foods," continued GMA, nevertheless revealing that it would petition the FDA to approve the use of low levels of PHOs, which, according to the trade organization, "is as safe as the naturally occurring trans fat present in the normal diet."

After the close of the compliance period, PHOs can't be added to human food unless they’re otherwise approved by the FDA.

Although cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia have instituted trans fat bans in restaurants within the past decade, Montgomery County, Md., became the first U.S. locality to ban them in restaurants, supermarket bakeries and delis, in 2007.

See coverage of the issue on "NBC Nightly News.

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