US food regulators want to all but ban trans fats, once ubiquitous in fast food and packaged snacks, in the culmination of the decades-long battle against a leading contributor to heart disease.
Under a Food and Drug Administration proposal announced on Thursday, partially hydrogenated oils will no longer be “generally recognised as safe”, meaning companies that wish to use them will have to prove that they are safe to eat. That will be all but impossible given that the majority of food science deems them unsafe.
If the proposal passes, after a 60-day public comment period, “it could, in effect, mean the end of artificial, industrially-produced trans fat in foods,” said Dennis Keef, director of the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety.
Those companies, among others, began voluntarily reducing or eliminating their use of trans fats about 10 years ago, when the FDA finalised a rule requiring manufacturers to list trans fats on nutrition labels by 2006.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the FDA’s move could prevent a further 7,000 heart disease deaths and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year.
Trans fats would not disappear altogether because they occur in small amounts naturally in meat and dairy products.
Artificial trans fats, created when hydrogen gas is used to treat liquid vegetable or animal oils to make them solid or semi-solid, have been in use since the early 1900s.
Trans fats were once thought to be healthier, cheaper substitutes for animal fats in frying, and were popular as margarine and shortening. The link to heart disease was only scientifically proven in the early 1990s.
In 2006, the FDA rule on nutritional labelling went into effect around the time that New York City all but banned the use of trans fats, with other states and cities following suit.
Since then, restaurants including Yum Brands’ KFC, Starbucks and Burger King have moved away from using trans fats.
Oils manufacturers, including Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, which had been key producers, have done the same, promoting products with little or no trans fats in recent years.
In 2011, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, announced that it would work with suppliers to remove “all remaining industrially produced trans fats” from its private label and national food brands by 2015.
According to the FDA, trans fats can still be found in some crackers, cookies, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza and coffee creamers, among other items.