WASHINGTON – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it had made a preliminary decision to classify the main source of dietary trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), as not “generally recognized as safe” for food use. The public may comment on the decision for a period of 60 days, after which the FDA will choose whether to finalize the action. Should the determination pass, PHOs will be classified as “food additives,” requiring special regulation for continued use.
A mounting body of research has indicated that trans fats are responsible for a number of deleterious health effects. Their most well-documented impacts are on heart health: trans fats lower “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL), raise “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and increase levels of inflammation. Some animal studies have also suggested that trans fat intake could increase insulin resistance, a condition that often leads to Type II diabetes. In light of these risks, New York City passed a widely publicized ban on trans fats in restaurants in 2006, which has been credited with encouraging the FDA to propose the ban at the federal level.
The process for making PHOs was first discovered by German chemist Wilhelm Normann in 1902. By forcing hydrogen gas through vegetable oil on a nickel catalyst, Normann was able to add hydrogen atoms to the molecular backbone of the oil’s fatty acid molecules. The process “straightened” the molecules, allowing them to stack more easily instead of flowing past each other; at the visible level, this turned the liquid oil into a semisolid spread. Proctor and Gamble found that the new fat had useful properties in cooking and increased the shelf life of products in which it was used, and the company began to market the first PHO as Crisco in 1911.
Although small amounts of trans fats naturally exist in beef and dairy products, produced by bacteria living in the guts of cows, these quantities are insignificant compared to the trans fats found in artificial PHOs. If the FDA ban is successful, scientists estimate that roughly a quarter of a million heart attacks, a fifth of those occurring in the U.S. every year, could be eliminated. Restaurants have already been developing new cooking techniques for foods such as donuts and french fries, and Wal-Mart has given its suppliers until 2015 to eliminate trans fats from their products. Together with the ban, these measures are helping to create a healthier food environment for all Americans.