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FDA to Ban Artery-Clogging Trans Fats

(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)

(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)

WASHINGTON (WGGB/AP) — Heart-clogging trans fats have been slowly disappearing from grocery aisles and restaurant menus in the last decade. Now, the Food and Drug Administration is finishing the job.

The FDA planned to announce Thursday it will require the food industry to gradually phase out all trans fats, saying they are a threat to people’s health. Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the move could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year.

Hamburg said that while the amount of trans fats in the country’s diet has declined dramatically in the last decade, they “remain an area of significant public health concern.” The trans fats have long been criticized by nutritionists, and New York and other local governments have banned them.

The agency isn’t yet setting a timeline for the phase-out, but it will collect comments for two months before officials determine how long it will take. Different foods may have different timelines, depending how easy it is to find a substitute.

“We want to do it in a way that doesn’t unduly disrupt markets,” says Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods. Still, he says, the food “industry has demonstrated that it is by and large feasible to do.”

To phase them out, the FDA said it had made a preliminary determination that trans fats no longer fall in the agency’s “generally recognized as safe” category, which is reserved for thousands of additives that manufacturers can add to foods without FDA review. Once trans fats are off the list, anyone who wants to use them would have to petition the agency for a regulation allowing it, and that would be unlikely to be approved.

Trans fats are widely considered the worst kind for your heart, even worse than saturated fats, which can also contribute to heart disease. Trans fats are used both in processed food and in restaurants, often to improve the texture, shelf life or flavor of foods. They are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid, which is why they are often called partially hydrogenated oils.

Scientists say there are no health benefits to trans fats and say they can raise levels of so-called “bad” cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease — the leading cause of death in the United States.

Many companies have already phased out trans fats, prompted by new nutrition labels introduced by FDA in 2006 that list trans fats and an by an increasing number of local laws that have banned them.

Though they have been removed from many items, the fats are still found in processed foods, including in some microwave popcorns and frozen pizzas, refrigerated doughs, cookies and ready-to-use frostings. They are also sometimes used by restaurants that use the fats for frying. Many larger chains have phased them out, but smaller restaurants may still get food containing trans fats from suppliers.

As a result of the local and federal efforts, consumers have slowly eaten fewer of the fats. According to the FDA, trans fat intake among American consumers declined from 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to around one gram per day in 2012.

FDA officials say they have been working on trans fat issues for around 15 years — the first goal was to label them — and have been collecting data to justify a possible phase-out since just after President Barack Obama came into office in 2009.

The advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest first petitioned FDA to ban trans fats nine years ago. The group’s director, Michael Jacobson, says the move is “one of the most important lifesaving actions the FDA could take.”

He says the agency should try to move quickly as it determines a timeline.

“Six months or a year should be more than enough time, especially considering that companies have had a decade to figure out what to do,” Jacobson said.

ABC40’s Dave Madsen spoke with ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser about Thursday’s announcement:

Besser: “It’s a big move. I wouldn’t say unprecedented. They’ve banned other ingredients before, but this is a big step. Trans fats, we’ve been talking about them for so many years. We’ve had labeling changes that have had an impact.  But now to declare that trans fat are not safe to be added to our food is a big step, it an important step.”

Madsen: “What foods would this impact the most?”

Besser: “That’s a good question. When they came out with the labeling change in 2006 a lot of manufacturers changed their process to get trans fat out of what they make. But you’ll still see some desserts, bakery items, popcorn, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, items in fast food restaurants, things that are deep fried and crunchy can have trans fats in them.”

Madsen: “My understanding is that even if a label does say zero trans fat, there can still be trans fat in there.”

Besser: “Yeah, the key to this and I’ll be showing this on World News tonight, is that you have to look at the specific ingredients. And if it says partially hydrogenated oil, that’s the same as it saying it has some trans fat.  As long as the level is half a gram per serving, they’re allowed to say zero on that label. That’s going to change if this goes through and they’re no longer going to be able to have any trans fat in that product.”

Madsen: “Let’s talk about the health impact too. I read today that this could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks every year?”

Besser: “Yeah, isn’t that incredible. What trans fats do is they raise your LDL, which is your bad cholesterol.  They lower your HDL which is your good cholesterol. And that leads to increased risk of heart disease. They estimate that 7000 lives could be saved per year if this goes through and that’s pretty amazing.”

As far as a timeline, Dr. Besser says the FDA will take public comment for sixty days. They want to wait and see what comments come in before doing that. They also want to give manufacturers time to make changes to their products.

Information from Mary Clare Jalonick of the Associated Press was used in this report.

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