by Sabrina Tavernise: The Food and Drug Administration proposed measures on Thursday that would all but eliminate artery-clogging, artificial trans fats from the food supply,
the culmination of three decades of effort by public health advocates to get the government to take action against them.
Artificial trans fats — a major contributor to heart disease in the United States — have already been substantially reduced in foods. But they still lurk in many popular products, like frostings, microwave popcorn, packaged pies, frozen pizzas, margarines and coffee creamers. Banning them completely could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year, the F.D.A. said.
“This is the final slam dunk on the trans fat issue,” said Barry Popkin, a nutrition epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The proposal is a rare political victory in an era when many regulations to protect public health have stalled. A landmark food safety bill took years to carry out, in part because it collided with the 2012 election season. And rules to regulate the tobacco industry are still stuck, four years after the law calling for them was passed. But just last month, the F.D.A. toughened restrictions on narcotic painkillers over industry objections. Thursday’s announcement got the attention of food experts.
“The F.D.A. is back,” said Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
The agency has proposed that partially hydrogenated oils, the source of trans fats, no longer be “generally recognized as safe.”
That means companies would have to prove that such oils are safe to eat, a high hurdle given that scientific literature overwhelmingly shows the contrary. The Institute of Medicine has concluded that there is no safe level for consumption of them, a conclusion that the F.D.A. cited in its reasoning.
The agency emphasized that the ruling, which is open to public comment for 60 days, was preliminary. But food producers seemed to take it in stride, in part because many had already made adjustments, and Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the agency’s commissioner, signaled that the draft rule might be made final.
“Life has many uncertainties, but we are on a clear track,” she said Thursday on a conference call with reporters. Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the F.D.A., said, “We have solid evidence showing the need for today’s action on trans fat.”
Partially hydrogenated oils are cheaper than saturated animal fats like butter, and for years were thought to be healthier. They are formed when liquid oil is treated with hydrogen gas and made solid. They became popular in fried and baked goods and in margarine. Crisco, originally marketed in the beginning of the 20th century, was the archetype, although it now contains no trans fat.
But over the years, scientific evidence has shown they are dangerous because they raise the levels of so-called bad cholesterol and can lower the levels of good cholesterol. In 2003, the F.D.A. required that artificial trans fats be listed on food labels, a shift that prompted many large producers to eliminate them. Two years later, New York City under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told restaurants to stop using artificial trans fats in cooking; other places, including California, Cleveland and Philadelphia, followed suit. Many major chains, like McDonald’s, found substitutes and eliminated trans fats.
Those actions led to a stunning reduction in consumption: Americans ate about one gram a day last year, down from 4.6 grams in 2006. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that blood levels of trans fatty acids among white adults in the United States declined by 58 percent from 2000 to 2009.
The Food and Drug Administration proposed measures on Thursday that would all but eliminate artery-clogging, artificial trans fats from the food supply, the culmination of three decades of effort by public health advocates to get the government to take action against them.
But the fats were not banned. They are required to be listed on food labels only if there is more than half a gram per serving, a trace amount that can add up. Even as little as two or three grams of trans fat a day can increase the health risk, scientists say. (Some trans fats occur naturally. The F.D.A. proposal applies only to those that are added to foods.)
“The artery is still half clogged,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the disease centers, who led the charge against the fats in New York when he was health commissioner there.
Scientists emphasized that saturated fats are still an enormous problem in the American diet, and that Thursday’s ruling should not give consumers false security.
“In the push to reduce trans fats, people have been forgetting that saturated fats are much worse because there is a lot more saturated fat in the diet than trans fat,” said Dr. Scott Grundy, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein, a nutritional biochemist at Tufts University, said about 1 percent of Americans’ total energy intake is trans fats, while about 12 percent is saturated fats.
Some nutritionists worried that trans fats would simply be replaced by saturated fats. But a study of lunch receipts from major fast food chains in New York City found that while saturated fat consumption increased modestly after the ban, the average of both together declined by about 2 grams per person, said Jean Weinberg, a spokeswoman for the city’s health department.
Experts said they did not expect companies or restaurants to object strenuously to the F.D.A. proposal, largely because the negative publicity made them want to avoid being associated with trans fats. Dr. Frieden said that restaurants in New York complied without too much fuss, because they found substitutes without too much additional cost, were given time to make the changes and taste was unchanged.In a statement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association noted that food manufacturers had already voluntarily lowered the amounts of trans fats by more than 73 percent since 2005.
Dr. Hamburg said there were brands within each food type singled out by the F.D.A. that had already eliminated trans fats, showing change is possible.
Dr. Popkin said eliminating the oils from baked goods might be more difficult, as they help create the desired flaky texture. But F.D.A. officials said they would give companies plenty of time to adjust to the new rules.
Denmark was the first country to virtually eliminate trans fat from foods in 2003, said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which first petitioned the F.D.A. to require the fats be listed on nutrition labels in 1994. Austria, Iceland and Switzerland followed.
Public awareness can be powerful. This summer Mr. Jacobson’s group drew attention to the fact that the Big Catch fried fish meal at Long John Silver’s, which comes with fried hush puppies and fried potatoes, contained 33 grams of trans fat. The restaurant chain has since promised to eliminate trans fats by the end of the year.