WASHINGTON, November 12, 2013—The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) announcement Thursday that it intended to ban trans fats from the American diet will affect many commercially processed foods and small businesses. Even though met with relatively little public or industry pushback, could it forever change the way Americans eat?
“Further reduction in the amount of trans fat in the American diet could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg in a press release announcing the change.
Trans fat is a common ingredient in many processed foods used to lengthen shelf life and provide texture in several commercially made foods since the 1950s. Trans fats, appearing as “partially hydrogenated oils” (PHOs) on ingredient labels, can be found in desserts, microwave popcorn, commercially baked goods, frying oils, frozen pizzas, margarines, canned frostings, chewy candies, and coffee creamers.
With its announcement Thursday that it planned to take steps to remove trans fats from its list of foods “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), FDA will be effectively banning PHOs from the food supply.
Stating that the ban would apply only to artificial trans fats, not those naturally occurring in some meats and dairy products, the agency also announced that it would open a 60-day comment period to allow food manufacturers and others to remark on how much time they would need to reformulate their products and how it would affect small businesses should the ban go into effect.
Most of the hardest work has already been done, however. Food producers have been trying to eliminate trans fat from ingredient lists for the last decade, as health concerns over PHOs arose and entire cities like San Francisco and New York banned their use in restaurants.
Because they raise bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol and have no health benefits, “there is no safe level of consumption of artificial trans fat,” according to he FDA.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), an association representing processed food producers, told USA Today that food manufacturers had already voluntarily lowered trans fats in their products by 73 percent since 2005. The Snack Food Association, another processed food lobby, told WebMD that 95 percent of its members have reduced trans fats in their products and a majority intend to eliminate them altogether.
Consumer intake of trans fats has also decreased in the last decade. On average in 2012 American consumers ate about 1 gram of trans fat per day, a decline from 4.6 grams in 2003.
According to the FDA, however, 12 percent of all packaged foods still contain trans fats.
“While consumption of potentially harmful artificial trans fat has declined over the last two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern,” Hamburg said in the press release. “The FDA’s action today is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat.”
Impact on small business, restaurant chains and processed food companies
Opinions of how the proposed legislation will affect consumers and producers vary widely. Some believe that the change has already happened and consumers will not be affected. Others fear a change in prices and the end of several products.
Several studies have shown that most foods can be reformulated to exclude trans fats. A majority of national restaurant chains including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Dunkin’ Donuts have already made the switch to trans fat-free ingredients, all without cutting menu items or their customers even noticing the change.
Other products traditionally high in trans fats like Crisco and Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn are also already made without PHOs.
“I don’t think it’s really a taste issue,” said Dan Glickman, former agriculture secretary to CNN. “It was cheaper for the food companies to do this over the years. But now, most of the science says we ought to get it out of the food supply.”
Others argue that the trans fat ban could be devastating to certain small businesses.
“In the long term, prices of certain foods will increase and different foods will be discontinued,” said Chris Shanahan, of Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm, to the Dallas Morning News.
While several larger businesses have already adapted to what many are calling a long-announced move by the FDA, many small companies have based their name and brand identity on a product that contains trans fat. These businesses will have to reinvent decades-old recipes and find a way to create the same taste their customers have come expect, or discontinue the product and possibly go out of business.
“It’s going to change the taste of the doughnut. It’s going to change the quality of the doughnut. And it is going to change the texture of the doughnut,” Thomas Gencarelli of Brothers Quality Bakery in New Jersey tells a CNN affiliate.
Sally Venegas, co-owner of Marquez Tortilla Factory said the same to a local news outlet in Dallas, where her company is located. “It’s almost like having to start all over again,” Venegas said.
Timing will be extremely important for these small businesses. FDA has not yet announced a schedule for when it intends to phase out trans fats should the ban go into effect, but Janet E. Collins, president of the Institute of Food Technologists, warns that if the phase-in period is too short, some products may disappear entirely.
When “zero trans fat” does not mean “no trans fat”
Under current FDA rules, “zero” trans fat does not mean “no trans fat.” This is because FDA allows restaurants and food producers to claim “zero” trans fat when the amount of PHO per serving is less than .5 grams.
Under the proposed rule, however, foods with any artificial trans fat—even those with less than .5 grams per serving—will be considered “adulterated foods” and subject to enforcement action by FDA.
Several restaurants and companies have exploited this loophole since trans fats were first required to be listed on nutrition labels in 2006, but may now be forced to change their recipes.
A spokesman for Frito-Lay, for example, told the Dallas Morning News that some snacks produced by the company fell into the 0 to .5 gram range and would have to be reformulated should the ban go into effect.
This, however, does not seem to be worrying Frito-Lay or the larger restaurants and food companies in general. When contacted for comment on whether the ban would change Krispy Kreme’s products (currently made with “a shortening blend that has zero grams of trans fat per serving,” according to the company’s website), a company spokesperson told Communities that their doughnuts would not be affected by the change. Krispy Kreme echoes what the rest of the industry has expressed to the media.
As the FDA receives comments from the industry and the public, the question of policing and enforcement remains. FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess told the Dallas Morning News that the agency was “still working on methods to reliably test food products with trans fat at levels as low as 0.1 gram per serving.”
Even though there has been little grumbling from consumers, Americans are divided on whether government should make our food choices. A Pew Research poll published on November 7 found 44 percent of Americans are in favor of banning the use of trans fats in restaurants while 52 percent oppose such a ban.
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