Artificial trans fat will be removed from the U.S. food supply over the next three years under a ruling by regulators that the products pose health risks that contribute to heart disease.
There's no longer a scientific consensus that partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of trans fat, are generally recognized as safe, according to a final decision released Tuesday by the Food and Drug Administration. The oils are used for frying and in baked goods as well as in confections.
Food companies will be able to petition the FDA to gain approval of specific uses of partially hydrogenated oils if they have data proving the use isn't harmful. Companies will have until June 2018 to comply with the FDA's determination, either by removing trans fat or gaining a waiver. The FDA said it hasn't seen any data to prove that even low levels of partially hydrogenated oils are safe.
The food industry has been using partially hydrogenated oils for decades, though many such as Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods Group Inc. and ConAgra Foods Inc. have been phasing them out. Many baked goods such as pie crusts and biscuits as well as canned frosting still use partially hydrogenated oils because they help baked goods maintain their flakiness and frostings be spreadable. As for frying, palm oil is expected to be a go-to alternative, while modified soybean oil may catch on as well.
"I don't know how many lives will be saved, but probably in the thousands per year when all the companies are in compliance," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The FDA estimates the ban will cost the food industry $6.2 billion over 20 years as it reformulates products and substitutes ingredients. The benefits will total $140 billion during the same time period, mostly from lower spending on health care.
Food companies have been switching to mixtures of palm and coconut oils or palm and soybean oils, the combination used in tubs of Country Crock margarine made by Unilever. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Washington-based lobby group for food companies, said in a statement the three-year period for compliance "provides time needed for food manufacturers to complete their transition."
The association also said it will petition the FDA for approval of uses of low levels of partially hydrogenated oils and plans to show they are as safe as naturally occuring trans fat.
ConAgra, which sells packaged foods such as Chef Boyardee pasta dishes, Swiss Miss hot chocolate and Orville Redenbacher's popcorn, has eliminated partially hydrogenated oils from 90 percent of its products, spokeswoman Teresa Paulsen said in an e-mail. Products that haven't yet been reformulated include a couple varieties of biscuits, Ms. Paulsen said.
General Mills Inc. has reduced trans fats in 350 products since 2008 and 95% of the company's U.S. retail products are labeled zero grams of trans fat, Kirstie Foster, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. General Mills makes Betty Crocker and Pillsbury cake mixes and frosting that still contain partially hydrogenated oils.
The move "demonstrates the agency's commitment to the heart health of all Americans," FDA Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff said in a statement. "This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year."
While Mr. Jacobson said palm oil as an alternative isn't ideal because it contains saturated fat, it's still better than trans fat.
"Trans fat raises the bad cholesterol and lowers the good cholesterol a little bit," he said."Saturated fat only raises the bad cholesterol."
About 70% of palm oil is produced in Malaysia and some also comes from Indonesia and South America, Tiger Tangavelu, technical director at Global Agri-Trade Corp., said in an e-mail. The U.S. market size for palm oil is 2.6 billion pounds (1.2 billion kilograms) annually, he said. He expects that to increase by half a billion pounds a year once trans fats are eliminated.
Modified soybean oil is also an option. Monsanto Co. is testing an oil called Vistive Gold made from soybeans that have been genetically modified to make it heart-healthier and good for frying without the need to hydrogenate it, said Sarah Vacek, soybean quality traits manager at Monsanto. Restaurants will be Vistive Gold's main target.
"It's been in the works for over a decade," Ms. Vacek said. "We are pre-commercial right now. We are anticipating a full commercial launch in 2016."
New York City was the first to ban trans fat from restaurants, followed by California, Philadelphia and Seattle, said Mr. Jacobson, with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Alternatives may not meet consumer expectations for pie crusts, according to comments from the American Frozen Food Institute filed after the FDA first proposed banning trans fat in 2013. The same may be true for canned frosting, especially whipped frosting, and for cake mixes, according to comments from the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
The association and the FDA have discussed the possibility that the Washington-based industry group will file a petition with the agency to allow some uses of partially hydrogenated oils, according to meeting minutes.