The American public health community, including organizations like the American Heart Association (AHA), is applauding the recent move by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to phase out artificial trans fat in processed food.
Many processed foods in the US are high in trans fat because they contain partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which have been used by food manufacturers in products like snack foods, fried foods, and packaged cake mixes since the 1950s. PHOs are created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, a process known as hydrogenation, which makes the oil more solid and improves the shelf life, texture, and flavor stability of the foods to which it is added. Since the early days of their use, PHOs have carried a Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) designation from the FDA.
However, health concerns about trans fat began to increase in the 1990s, as more and more research linked trans fat consumption to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. In a landmark 2002 report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science, trans fat was found to raise the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol, in the blood; high LDL blood cholesterol levels are a major contributing factor in the development of cardiovascular disease.
In 2006, the FDA required that nutrition facts labels on foods list trans fat content, but in spite of two citizen petitions (in 2004 and 2009), it wasn’t until 2013 that the FDA issued a tentative determination that PHOs and artificial trans fat no longer had GRAS status. In June of 2015 came the final determination: the GRAS status of PHOs has officially been revoked.
The FDA has set a three-year compliance period to allow food manufacturers to eliminate PHOs from their products (or, alternatively, to petition the FDA to allow specific PHO use). When complete, this action is expected to prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks in the US each year, and to reduce the rates of coronary heart disease among Americans.