The agency has proposed a rule that would remove the "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) designation for partially hydrogenated oils, which food manufacturers create by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils, generating trans fats in the process. Doing so would mean that any food company that wants to use partially hydrogenated oils would require FDA approval to do so. And the FDA has said, essentially, that that will never happen. (In a perfect example of the fox watching the henhouse, food companies determine whether an ingredient is generally recognized as safe and send it to market, and the FDA steps in to regulate only when it determines that said ingredient really isn't all that safe.)
While the FDA has removed the GRAS designation from a number of lesser-known ingredients and those that pose an acute health threat, this is the first time the agency has done so with an ingredient used on such a massive scale, says Benico Barzilai, MD, section head of clinical cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic. "I actually think the FDA was getting frustrated that they had really come down hard on trans fats, but they are still being used quite a bit in the food industry," he says. "I think they saw that the only way to reduce their use is an outright ban."
In 2006, the agency required food manufacturers to list trans fats on the Nutrition Facts panel of processed foods, and in response, some companies reformulated their products to avoid bad press—but only some. In May 2013, a study from Harvard University and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) revealed that the heart-damaging fats were still widely used by the food industry, with microwave popcorn, fried fast-food, and canned breads (such as biscuits, crescent rolls, and cookie dough) containing alarming amounts. The American Heart Association recommends restricting trans fat intake to 2 grams per day; some of the fat-laden foods Harvard and CSPI looked at contained 7 grams per serving. (Are Hidden Trans Fats Still Hiding in Your Favorite Foods?)
Dr. Barzilai adds that a lot of people just aren't that aware of how widespread the fats still are, especially in restaurant foods. "A lot of restaurants, particularly small vendors, are still using trans fat–laden products because they're convenient," he says.
And they're continuing to put public health at risk. Just before the FDA required labeling in 2006, Harvard epidemiologists estimated that these fats were responsible for between 72,000 and 228,000 cases of heart disease and 50,000 deaths each year. A few years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accounting for reduced use thanks to labeling, estimated that artificial trans fats were still causing 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 deaths annually. Considering that trans fats first debuted in 1912, that means they could be responsible for the deaths of roughly 5 million people, says Drew Ramsay, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and author of The Happiness Diet. (Read this excerpt of Dr. Ramsey's book to get the full backstory on when and how trans fats infiltrated America.
It's not just deaths, Ramsey adds. "These fats are not only linked to heart disease, they're also linked to increased risk of depression," he says, which may be attributable to inflammation caused by the artificial fats. "When you put strange things into the biochemical gears of the body, strange things happen. That's the lesson we're learning with foods over and over."
There's no telling when the FDA's new rule will be finalized or implemented, so, Dr. Ramsey advises, "you shouldn't depend on the FDA to keep trans fats out of your diet. It's very, very easy to do on your own: Just stop eating stuff from packages."