The Food and Drug Administration yesterday declared that widely used trans fats are not safe in food in any quantities and began a 60-day comment period on a proposed rule to entirely phase out their use.  This action by FDA represents one of the most sweeping actions the agency has undertaken in recent years and may indicate that the agency is going to be more aggressive in the mostly unregulated area of food additives.

FDA “has made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of artificial trans fats in processed foods, are not ‘generally recognized as safe’ for use in food,” FDA said in making its announcement.   After the comment period is over, FDA will consider the path forward, but most experts believe FDA will continue to move towards the elimination of trans fats in food products.  However, it will take years until such a sweeping change is implemented as the food industry would have to reformulate a large number of products.

To avoid the ban, food manufacturers would have to prove that trans fats are safe to eat, which would be a “challenge,” considering the scientific literature, Michael Taylor, FDA food commission, told The New York Times.

Partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of trans fats, are made by bubbling hydrogen through vegetable oils–a process that makes the oil much more shelf stable and easier to blend with other ingredients.  Food scientists say that the use of trans fats make products taste better, extends shelf life, and decreases, in some cases, the cost of production.  However, research has shown over time that the compounds contribute to heart disease, raises bad cholesterol, and lowers good cholesterol.

Food manufacturers have found alternatives to trans fats in recent years in response to labeling requirements and consumer awareness.  But FDA’s initiative will force companies to find a way to reformulate their products to eliminate all trans fat.  The end result will be that manufacturers will  have to rein in their expiration dates places on products, and the reformulated products may be more expensive and not taste the same.  Another potential consequence of the move away from trans fats could increase the use of saturated fat in foods, such as palm or coconut oil, which are already considered unhealthy. Many consumers already shy away from saturated fats in the products they consume.

In response to the FDA notice, American Soybean Association President Danny Murphy, said “given that the food and vegetable oil industries have already moved to greatly reduce trans fats in food products and in American diets, we do have questions about the need for FDA to take this proposed action.”  And, “since it will take a few years to ramp up high oleic soybean production to provide an economical alternative to food processors, we believe any final FDA determination on the matter should reflect this timeframe,” Murphy said.