by Bill Bonvie
For some time now, we’ve been warning our readers here at Food Identity Theft not to be fooled by a “zero trans fat” claim made on the Nutrition Facts panel of many products that have partially hydrogenated oil listed among their ingredients.
Well, surprise, surprise! After decades of allowing a substance it now acknowledges has been killing thousands of people every year to be added to processed food products, and years of permitting consumers to be given phony assurances that they weren’t eating any of it, the Food and Drug Administration has finally decided enough is enough. That is to say, they’ve started a ‘process of elimination’ in motion (although perhaps slow motion would be more like it).
In what’s being hailed as a monumental decision on behalf of consumer protection, the agency has made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oil (PHO) no longer be given a “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) designation. Once given final approval, this would eventually remove most artery-clogging trans fat from the processed food Americans eat.
While most products are currently labeled as containing zero grams of trans fat, that is often not actually the case, since those that contain half a gram (.05 grams) or less per serving were exempted from the labeling requirement. But such amounts, in actuality, can quickly add up to what the FDA admits is a “significant intake” of trans fat, an ingredient for which the Institute of Medicine has concluded there is no “safe level” that may be consumed.
That’s why we’ve been urging our readers to pay no attention whatsoever to the claim that a product contains zero grams of trans fat on its so-called Nutrition Facts label. But that warning could eventually become unnecessary should the FDA go ahead and implement its proposed new ruling, which it has posted in the Federal Register with a public comment period that ends on Jan. 7. Assuming that happens, “it could in effect, mean the end of artificial, industrially-produced trans fat in foods,” according to Dennis M. Keefe, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety.
Not that a change of this nature would occur overnight. Even if approved, the FDA would still be apt to give businesses ample opportunity to adjust to the new policy – or, to quote from the FDA ‘s consumer update, “the agency and food industry would have to figure out a way to phase out the use of PHOs over time.” But once fully implemented, it is estimated (and these figures come from another government agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) that it would prevent some 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 heart-disease related deaths annually.
Stop and think for a moment what that means. We’re talking about more than twice the number of deaths that occurred in the 9/11 attacks every year, resulting from a process with “no known health benefit,” whose purpose is merely to increase the shelf-life and “flavor stability” of packaged foods and baked goods.
A paradigm for the removal of other bad additives?
To be sure, this proposed reform has been a long time coming, those partially hydrogenated oils having reportedly been used since the 1940s in a wide variety of convenience foods, including margarine, which was once considered a “healthy” substitute for butter. But the tide really began to turn in 2002, when the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine reported a direct correlation between the intake of trans fat and increased levels of “bad cholesterol” (that is, low density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol, which has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease). The following year, the FDA responded by issuing a ruling that trans fat content be listed on Nutrition Facts panels — but even that wasn’t fully implemented for another three years, and was seriously flawed by the .05 gram ‘ loophole’.
The time it took for even that compromise to materialize should serve as a kind of “reality check” for consumers to realize they can’t yet let their guard down when it comes to trans fats, and will have to keep checking ingredients listings for many months to come, even assuming the ruling is formally approved.
What the FDA’s action does show, however, is that it is possible for the agency to be pressured to return to its original mission and, in its plodding fashion, purge our food supply of additives that are hazardous to our health. For once researchers implicated trans fat in heart disease, a number of locales, including New York City and California, began to take action to ban it in restaurant food, and some restaurant chains responded by eliminating it on their own. In the intervening years, food manufacturers also began to reduce trans fat content in products as well, which will make any adjustment to the proposed new rule much easier to facilitate.
Hopefully, then, the proposed elimination of added trans fats will not only go on to become policy. but will serve as a model of how other ill-advised additives now considered GRAS can follow suit.
Take high fructose corn syrup, for example. Its saga is very similar to that of trans fat — for example, in the sneaky way it was approved for use in the American diet and introduced into countless processed foods, including many marketed to children. There are also distinct similarities to trans fat in the human health toll that has accompanied its widespread presence in food products and in the adverse publicity and negative studies that have recently caused it to be dropped as an ingredient from many of them. So maybe — just maybe — it will end up following the same trajectory.
It’s just a shame that, just like partially hydrogenated oil, it will continue to wreak such havoc on society until the day comes when it, too, is finally phased out.