Trans Fat: the Ban, the Petition, the Future
Posted by , MS, RD, LD, FADA

Trans fat – it’s been a hot topic in the nutrition and regulatory arenas since the early 2000s.  Even today, the debate and discussion are high on the priority list in health and wellness.

In June of this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a determination that artificial trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are no longer generally recognized as safe (GRAS).  As background, the GRAS list includes those food ingredients and additives that scientific experts agree are safe for human consumption.  By June 18, 2018, food companies must remove all PHOs from foods.

In their determination, FDA acknowledges that consumer intake of trans fat decreased by 78% between 2003 and 2012 and that, as of 2012, average consumption had dropped to 1 gram trans fat per person per day.  At the same time, FDA indicates that up to 54,900 cases of coronary heart disease, depending on the scientific modeling used, could be eliminated each year with removal of PHOs from the food supply.  Replacing trans with monounsaturated (think canola oil) or polyunsaturated (think soybean oil) fats have more benefit than when saturated fat is used as the substitute.

It’s important to understand that removing PHOs from the GRAS list doesn’t mean they can never be used again in foods.  The FDA has a rulemaking process through which companies can petition to allow specific uses of PHOs at specific levels.  In August, the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), a trade association of food manufacturers, submitted such a petition.  In the request, GMA proposes allowing PHOs in more than 50 product types, including protein drinks, pancake mixes, shortenings, pie crust and microwave popcorn.

A nuance of the removal of artificial sources of trans fat from the GRAS list is that very low levels, such as those in oils used as carriers for flavors and colors or as pan-release agents in the baking industry, are also now banned.  In their petition, GMA has requested allowances for these categories.

In the meantime, the food industry is looking at options to replace the last remaining PHOs in the food supply.  Some of these options, such as fully hydrogenated oils or tropical oils, increase saturated fat.  Oils can be processed differently than hydrogenation using techniques such as fractionation or inter-esterification, but these processes can lead to saturated fat development as well.  Blending oils to replace the benefits of trans fat in food production (think mouth feel, shelf life, texture) and plant breeding to develop new oils are the leading technologies being looked at by the food industry to replace PHOs.

According to Label Insight, a company that tracks detailed data on ingredients, nutrition, and claims on packaged food products, 5.7% of the 148,142 products in their database currently include PHOs in the ingredient listing.  The top five grocery categories that contain PHOs are cookies, cake, cookie and cupcake mixes, ice cream and frozen yogurt, popcorn, peanuts, seeds and related snacks, candy, and frozen appetizers.

While a three-year window feels like a long time in consumers’ minds, there is much product reformulation as well as oil development to be done in order to remove trans fat from partially hydrogenated oils and still give consumers products that taste great, meet their storage needs, and at the same time, meet their health needs.