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FDA to ban trans fats

The US Food and Drug Administration has taken a bold step to remove trans fats from the food supply issuing a proposed regulation Thursday that would remove the artificially manufactured fats from its list of ingredients “generally recognized as safe.”

While many food manufacturers have already removed partially hydrogenated oils from their products, many still use them in sweetened baked goods, margarine, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, and coffee creamers.

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“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,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg. “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—a critical step in the protection of Americans’ health.”

Trans fat is thought to be particularly heart damaging because it raises the “bad” LDL cholesterol while lowering the “good” HDL cholesterol, which raises the risk of heart disease.

In a review of recent research, the Institute of Medicine determined that trans fat provides no known health benefit, and there is no safe level of consumption of artificial trans fat. The group of scientists recommended that consumers keep their consumption of trans fat as low as possible while consuming a nutritionally adequate diet.

The American Heart Association applauded the FDA’s proposed move calling it a “tremendous step forward in the fight against heart disease,” adding in a statement that the group “has long advocated for eliminating trans fat from the nation’s food supply.”

In a press briefing on Thursday, Hamburg said it was crucial for the food industry to provide its input on the trans fat ban during a two-month comment period in order “to determine how much time they’ll need to remove partially hydrogenated oils from products.”

While the FDA wouldn’t speculate on how long it might take to remove trans fats from foods, “six months is probably a reasonable time” to expect the industry to reformulate baked goods, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition activist group in Washington DC.

Many Americans have already drastically cut their consumption of trans fats over the past decade. In March 2009, Boston banned trans fats in restaurants from serving food cooked or baked with margarine or other oils that contain trans fat. Restaurants and bakeries in Brookline and Cambridge have banned the oils from foods, and manufacturers nationwide have been required to add trans fats to food labels.

The average American eats about 1 gram of trans fats each day compared to 4.6 grams per day in 2003.

Many consumers may be getting some of these fats from products labeled “zero trans fats” because the FDA allows up to 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving in such products. Big manufacturers like Nabisco and J.J. Smucker will need to remove partially hydrogenated oils from their products in order to comply with the proposed FDA rule.

“Yes, it will be difficult,” said Dr. Caroline Apovian, director of the nutrition and weight management center at Boston Medical Center who worked as a paid nutrition consultant to several restaurant chains to help them remove trans fats from their menus. “But trans fats are poison, and we’ve known for several years now that they cause heart disease and accelerate artery plaque. The industry had ample time to figure out what to do to eliminate them.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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