The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday proposed banning artificial trans fats in processed food ranging from cookies to frozen pizza, citing the risk of heart disease.
Partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of trans fats, have been shown to raise LDL "bad" cholesterol. Reducing the use of trans fats could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease a year, the FDA said.
Public health advocates welcomed the move.
"Artificial trans fat is a uniquely powerful promoter of heart disease, and today's announcement will hasten its eventual disappearance from the food supply," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The FDA's proposal is not the first public effort to ban trans fats. New York City banned the use of trans fats in restaurants, including their use for deep-frying foods, and many restaurants and fast food chains, including McDonald's Corp., have eliminated their use.
Some European countries have also taken steps. Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland regulate the sale of many foods containing trans fats.
Products that still contain trans fats include some varieties of crackers, refrigerated dough, coffee creamers and ready-to-use frosting, among others. Some products will be harder to reformulate than others.
The use of trans fats has declined dramatically since 2006, when the FDA required that trans fat levels be disclosed on package labels. Food manufacturers have voluntarily lowered the amounts of trans fats in their food products by more than 73 percent since 2005, in part by reformulating products. The average daily intake of trans fats by Americans fell from 4.6 grams a day in 2003 to 1 gram in 2012.
It was unclear which companies would be hit hardest, or what the total cost will be, but many products well known to U.S. consumers are likely to be affected.
Among products singled out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest were various Marie Callender's pies, made by ConAgra Foods Inc; Diamond Foods' Pop Secret microwave popcorn; and cinnamon rolls from Pillsbury Co, owned by General Mills.
In general, food companies take about two years from the time they are introduced to an alternative ingredient until they can commit to a switchover.
Hydrogenation is a chemical process that converts liquid vegetable oils into solid or semi-solid fats. Partially hydrogenated oils extend the shelf life of foods, and certain types of popcorn, fish sticks, pies, donuts and pizza depend on trans fats for their taste and texture.
Coming up with alternative recipes for products that contain trans fats will largely be a matter of trial and error, industry experts say. Palm kernel oil, which is solid at room temperature and has become a popular substitute for trans fats, might work in some cases but some products might have to be dropped.
In Asia, home to the world's biggest palm oil producers Indonesia and Malaysia, industry officials said exports of the tropical product will rise if the FDA proposal is approved.
Palm oil producers said the possible FDA ban on trans fats vindicates them after years of being kept out by the powerful soybean lobby in the Americas over concerns that palm oil brings about more heart disease.
The FDA's proposal is subject to a 60-day public comment period in which food companies are expected to outline how long they expect it to take them to reformulate products.
If the proposal becomes final, partially hydrogenated oils would be considered food additives and would not be allowed in food unless authorized by health regulators. The ruling would not affect trans fats that occur naturally in small amounts in certain meat and dairy products.
Companies wishing to include trans fats in their products would have to meet the safety standards applied to food additives and prove with reasonable certainty that they do not cause harm.
It has been more than half a century since U.S. regulations governing food additives were last revised. In that time, the number of chemicals in the food supply has risen from fewer than 2,000 to an estimated 10,000, many of which are never reviewed by the FDA.
Under loose regulations created more than 50 years ago to help companies avoid lengthy delays in getting food additives approved, the FDA created a list of products considered "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS).
Companies can either petition to get their ingredients affirmed safe by the FDA, or they can declare them safe based on their own research or that of hired consultants. The FDA has the option to challenge such declarations.
Experts say while the GRAS system provides the current legal framework for regulating food additives, the system bears re-examining to see if it is adequate to ensure the safety of the food supply.
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