The FDA announced that the food industry has three years to remove trans fats from food. But as Contributing Editor William Heisel explains in his prescient three-part series on trans fats, other countries were much earlier and more aggressive in setting policy limits.
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FDA's Announcement to Remove Trans Fats Analyzed
After Denmark adopted restrictions on trans fats in 2004, the country saw a reduction in cardiovascular deaths, while food prices and availability weren't significantly impacted. ReportingOnHealth's Contributing Editor William Heisel examines the FDA's ground breaking announcement in this article:
By 2018 there will be no more trans fats in our food supply, right? If you weren’t paying close attention to the FDA’s announcement that the food industry had three years to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils, you might think that. And you could be forgiven for thinking that because the whole regulatory process around this once popular and now much-maligned food ingredient has been messy. The Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA first to label and then to limit trans fats and deserves a lot of credit for pushing this issue forward. It created a valuable timeline to help people understand the history. Here are five things to watch for as the FDA’s new ruling rolls out.
- Will trans fats disappear from foods? No. The limit only applies to partially hydrogenated oils. The announcement was quite specific. It said that “partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not ‘generally recognized as safe’ … for use in human food.” This will cover most artificially produced trans fats, unless the industry finds new ways to create products that contain a different type of trans fat, a highly unlikely but nonetheless possible move. (Consider what has happened with electronic cigarettes in response to increasing restrictions on tobacco smoking.) “Zero trans fats” on food labels has never meant zero, either. Foods can be labeled as having “0” grams of trans fat as long as they contain 0.5 grams or less of trans fat per serving. And don’t forget that companies can petition to have trans fats included in foods.
- Can manufacturers change their practices in three years? If the experiences of Denmark, which limited trans fats in 2004, and other countries hold true in the U.S., the answer is yes. The alternatives to trans fats are already on the market and in use. The country did not see a rise in food prices or a major change in the types of foods that were available. Take the example of McDonald’s. Before the country limited trans fats, the fat content of McDonald’s foods contained 8 percent trans fatty acids. Following the 2004 law, the restaurant chain eliminated trans fats.
- Will the change cut down the country’s massive health care bill? The cost-benefit ratio is staggering. The FDA estimated that the cost of putting limits on partially hydrogenated oils in foods, including “packaged food reformulation and relabeling, increased costs for substitute ingredients, and consumer, restaurant, and bakery recipe changes” would be $6.2 billion. The agency then estimated major benefits to consumers and the health care system over 20 years, including medical savings. The expected net benefits were estimated at $130 billion. It’s worth noting, however, that there is a very wide confidence interval around these estimates, both on the costs and benefits side, meaning that under some scenarios the costs of the new rule change could exceed the expected benefits over 20 years. Journalists should pay close attention to these costs over time and also pay attention to lawsuits over the rule and other spinoff effects.
- How quickly will this ruling change trans fat consumption? In 2006, the FDA started requiring food makers to include trans fats on food labels. The agency said that the food labels led to healthier food, both through consumers choosing products lower in trans fats and manufacturers using less trans fats in products. The agency estimated that between 2003 and 2012, consumption of trans fats fell by 78 percent. That’s a huge drop by any standard. Just the period between 2010 and 2012 saw a 23 percent decline, according to the FDA’s statement in the Federal Register. Journalists should watch to see whether this new warning on trans fats has a similar impact, meaning trans fats become a non-issue by the June 2018 deadline.
Will the trans fat phase out improve health outcomes? Researchers should start their clocks now to see whether the limits have a health impact. The statement from the FDA was unequivocal on this point. FDA Acting Commissioner Dr. Stephen Ostroff said in a statement, “The FDA’s action on this major source of artificial trans fat demonstrates the agency’s commitment to the heart health of all Americans. This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”
Given all the complexities of the interaction between diet and health, it will be interesting to see how the FDA and independent academic researchers tease out the impact of the ruling. Often it takes many years for the ripple effect from a decision like this to be seen. For example, there’s no question that the first U.S. Surgeon General declaration on the dangers of smoking led to lower smoking rates, but the impact on heart disease and cancer took longer to see because it’s impossible to fully reverse the damage done by smoking once you start.
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