The Ends of Trans Fats?
The Food and Drug Administration on Friday issued a preliminary ruling declaring that partially hydrogenated oils would no longer be classified as “generally recognized as safe.” Partially hydrogenated oils—like shortening and margarine—are created by adding hydrogen to liquid oils to make them solid fats. While they have a long history of use in the United States, particularly in processed foods, a number of recent studies have found a correlation between consumption of trans fats and higher levels of heart disease. As public pressure has increased to curtail their use, some retailers have responded. McDonald’s for example, does not use trans fats in its foods. Nevertheless, the average American consumes about 1 gram of trans fats per day (down from an average of 4.6 grams per day in 2003), and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg noted that “current intake [of trans fats] remains a significant public health concern.”
The Food and Drug Administration uses the classification of “generally recognized as safe” (or GRAS) for rapid approval of substances that are not believed to pose a risk to human health. According to the PEW Health Group, more than 10,000 chemicals are classified as GRAS. But the system has been widely criticized, with one study of the process by which GRAS approval was granted finding decisions were based exclusively on studies performed by parties with a financial interest in the outcome.
The FDA’s decision to rescind GRAS status for trans fats will not be finalized until after a 60 day open comment period. But several groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have already issued statements of support for the FDA’s decision.
To be clear, the FDA is hardly at the cutting edge of the debate over trans fats. Prompted by FDA labeling requirements imposed in 2006, many companies have already begun to phase out the use of trans fats. New York City banned their use in restaurants in 2008, and Wal-Mart in 2011 pledged to remove all foods containing artificial trans fats from its store shelves by 2016. Existing school lunch guidelines were revised to prevent trans fats from being served in school cafeterias. Withdrawal of GRAS status would not completely prohibit the use of trans fats, but it would mean that products containing trans fats would be subject to additional review and approval by the FDA before they could be marketed, and this shift would represent an important step in improving public health in the United States.