US bans 'unsafe' trans fats in food

The heart attack-contributing oils must be removed in next 3 years

WASHINGTON - Artificial trans fats found in everything from margarine to cookies and frozen pizzas are not safe to eat and must be removed from American food in the next three years.

Also often used in frosting and crackers, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) contribute to heart disease and fatal heart attacks in thousands of Americans every year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said on Tuesday, calling them not "generally recognised as safe".

"The FDA's action on this major source of artificial trans fat demonstrates the agency's commitment to the heart health of all Americans," said acting FDA commissioner Stephen Ostroff.

The oils are formed during food processing when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid. Reducing their use could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths a year, the agency said.

Partially hydrogenated oils carry no health benefits and the Institute of Medicine has previously determined that no level is safe for consumption.

Under new FDA regulations, partially hydrogenated oils, which have been shown to raise "bad" LDL cholesterol, will be considered food additives that cannot be used in the US unless authorised by the FDA. The three-year deadline gives companies time to either reformulate products without partially hydrogenated oils or petition the FDA to permit specific uses of them.

Following the compliance period, no partially hydrogenated oils can be added to human food unless they are approved by the FDA.

The new regulations will apply to such oils added to human foods, regardless of whether they are sold in a grocery store, restaurant, bakery or elsewhere, and whether the food is domestically produced or imported, the FDA said. They do not, however, apply to naturally-occurring trans fats found in some animal products such as meat and dairy.

Food manufacturers in the US have been required since 2006 to include trans fat content information on canned and packaged food labels.

The law still allows foods to be labelled as having zero grams of trans fat if they contain less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving, but FDA officials said that a separate effort is under way to change that, and that PHOs will no longer be allowed in any foods after three years unless they get a specific exemption from regulators.

The FDA has said the labelling rule and actions taken by the food industry have already led to a 78 per cent decrease in trans fat consumption in the past decade.

"While trans fat intake has significantly decreased, the current intake remains a public health concern," the FDA said.

According to Ms Rebecca Blake, director of clinical nutrition at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York, the current labelling laws are misleading consumers.

"If one serving of a product has less than 0.5g of trans fat, it can be legally labelled trans fat free. But are people really eating only one cookie or five fries?

"The servings often add up and the consumer ends up with far more trans fats in their diet than they realise."

The US Grocery Manufacturers Association said it was pleased with the three-year time period because it "provides time needed for food manufacturers to complete their transition to suitable alternatives and/or seek food additive approval".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2015, with the headline 'US bans 'unsafe' trans fats in food'. Print Edition | Subscribe