What's behind the FDA ban on trans fats?

Food companies have three years to remove trans fats, also called partially hydrogenated oils, from their products, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)
Doughnuts are displayed in Chicago. There are a lot fewer trans fats in the nation’s food than there were a decade ago, but the Obama administration is moving toward getting rid of them almost entirely. The Food and Drug Administration is phasing it out could prevent thousands of deaths each year.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday that it is banning artificial trans fats from the US food supply.

The agency said companies will have three years to remove trans fats, also called partially hydrogenated oils, from their products, a move that, according to FDA estimates, may prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year.

The trans fats ban comes amidst a quality or natural food revolution, of sorts. Organic foods have grown in popularity, food advocacy has entered the mainstream, and Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the contents of processed foods, leading popular fast-food restaurants, such as McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, Taco Bell, and Panera, to announce changes to their menus trumpeting natural ingredients.

The move to eliminate trans fats – which are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid and spreadable at room temperature – has been in the works for years.

Invented more than a century ago with the introduction of hydrogenated shortening, trans fats became popular in the 1940s when processed foods became popular. Food companies liked them because they provided desirable taste and texture to baked goods, extended the shelf life of processed foods, and were cheaper than other fats like lard or butter. Trans fats became a key ingredient in such popular foods as frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, refrigerated pie crusts and biscuits, coffee creamers, vegetable shortenings, and margarine.

Today, the foods highest in trans fats include such popular fare as deep-fried Popeye's chicken and hash browns, store-bought pie crusts, margarine, shortening such as Crisco, store-bought frosting such as Betty Crocker's, pancake and waffle mixes such as Bisquick, and microwave popcorns such as Pop Secret, according to the Daily Meal.

But public opinion about trans fats began to shift in the 1990s, as studies indicated health risks associated with the fats, reports the Washington Post.

In 1994, the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest began petitioning the FDA to ban trans fats, and in 2002, the Institute of Medicine found that there was “no safe level of trans fatty acids and people should eat as little of them as possible.”

By 2006, the FDA required food companies to include trans fat content information on the Nutrition Facts labels. Partly due to that law, consumption of trans fats fell nearly 80 percent between 2003 and 2012, the FDA estimated.

Cities such as New York and Philadelphia imposed bans on trans fat in restaurants. Food manufacturers followed suit, with large chains like McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Dunkin' Donuts, announcing that they have or will cut trans fats from their products.

The FDA's announced ban, then, is simply an exclamation mark on a trend that has already been in place for years.

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