FDA’s Proposed Trans Fat Ban and Potential Environmental Impacts

by Barbara Patterson

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration made a substantial first step at banning partially hydrogenated oils– the primary source of industrially produced fats. FDA has made a tentative decision that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer recognized as safe in foods. If finalized after the 60-day comment period, the decision would mean that food manufacturers would no longer be permitted to sell partially hydrogenated oils or use them as ingredients without prior approval from FDA for use as a food additive.

Under an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, in 1958, any substance that is intentionally added to a food is classified as a food additive and is subsequently subject to pre-market review and approval by FDA unless it is generally recognized as safe, or GRAS as its commonly referred as.  A food substance may be GRAS through either scientific procedures or through experience based on common use in food for substances used prior to 1958.  Partially hydrogenated oils have been used widespread commercially due to their ability to increase shelf life and inexpensive cost since the 1940s and have been considered GRAS by the food industry due to the pre-1958 use of partially hydrogenated oils.

FDA admits that trans fat consumption has declined tremendously since mandated nutrition labeling for all trans fats fully went into effect in 2008, based on the 2003 ruling from FDA.  Yet the Administration recognizes that certain populations still consume high levels of trans fats.   Those populations still consuming high amounts of foods containing trans fats face the risk of adverse effects on blood cholesterol levels and increased risk for coronary heart disease.  Trans fats are the worst offending fats because they raise LDL cholesterol, the “bad cholesterol,” and lower HDL, the “good cholesterol.”

What will replace trans fats in foods?  Likely other saturated fats will replace trans fat in the diet, resulting in increased use of palm or coconut oils.  If demand switches to palm oil, it may have devastating environmental impacts.  Indonesia, for example, has lost tremendous rainforest acreage due to the production of palm oil.  From 2009 to 2011, Indonesia lost 1.24 million hectares of forest, largely driven by increased palm oil production.  Indonesia has one of the world’s largest rainforest, and the depleted forests have made the country a significant contributor to global climate change.

Critics of FDA’s initial attempt to ban trans fat argue that the ban is no longer necessary since the labeling requirements prompted the removal of the majority of trans fats in processed foods.  The American Soybean Association stated in a press release, “We have concerns that if the FDA were to finalize this determination, food processor may be pressured to replace remaining partially hydrogenated oils with those high in saturated fat such as palm or coconut oils, which would not be a good outcome for consumers.”

If you would like to comment on the proposed removal of GRAS status for partially hydrogenated oils, you can submit a written comment on regulations.gov or mail a hard copy to FDA by the deadline, January 7, 2014.

Barbara Patterson is a 2nd year FPAN/AFE student focused on federal policy.  She loves bourbon, Michigan and her dog, Daisy. To learn more about her, please visit our Meet Our Writers page.

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