New ‘study’ finds trans fats still a threat (just as we’ve been telling you all along)

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September 2, 2014



To a lot of consumers, whether they heard it from local TV news anchors or National Public Public Radio, the news last Thursday must have come as a shockaroozi.

It seems that a new study not only has found that one in 10 processed foods still contain the partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) that the Food and Drug Administration proposed a ban on nine months ago as a primary source of artery-clogging trans fats, but 84 percent of those products are labeled as having “zero trans fats.”

Now, had it not been for those enterprising researchers at the New York Department of Health and Public and Mental Hygiene who came up with these revelations, who would ever have known such a thing?

Well, how about regular readers of this blog?  We’ve been warning you about the “trans fat loophole” that allows up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to be reduced to a zero on the “Nutrition Facts” label since the beginning of 2012. We’ve also been regularly providing you with examples of the numerous packaged foods that still contain partially hydrogenated oil, despite claims that food companies have been hard at work in an effort to get rid of them.

And just last week, even before the reports of this latest “study” were aired, we took the trouble to get in touch with the FDA to try to find out if any specific action had either been taken or was being planned to implement the proposal made last November to take PHOs off the agency’s list of Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) ingredients. And here’s the response we got in an email from Marianna Naum, Ph.D. of the Strategic Communications and Public Engagement Staff of the FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine: “We continue to review comments to the proposal and at this time aren’t able to conjecture on date of next action.”

Might industry have put the brakes on the FDA’s proposed ban?

Wow! Given that the FDA itself, in calling for this ban (or “phase-out”) of PHOs, estimated that these additives are responsible for 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths every year, it certainly doesn’t appear to be in any particular hurry to stem this acknowledged tide of death and serious illness. Especially when you consider the fact that an “extended comment period” on the proposal ended back on March 8 – nearly six months ago.

Might it have been put off by some of the comments submitted during that period, do you suppose?  That is, the ones that came from “stakeholders” – meaning food industry groups with an economic interest in maintaining the PHO status quo and who don’t really see trans fat as posing that much of a health risk?

“The food industry is urging the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw its ‘tentative determination’ that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) should no longer be ‘generally recognized as safe (GRAS),”  the online trade pub Food Business News reported back in April. Industry associations and companies, it noted, while “supporting “further reduction” of dietary trans fat, “suggested there were other less disruptive and more effective approaches to accomplish the same end.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, for example, urged the agency to replace its proposed ban on PHOs “with a fundamentally different approach that will achieve a policy aim that will be supported by consumers, industry and the agency.” Such a “prudent” course of action, the GMA maintained, could consist of  a “less onerous proposal that builds on already existing programs that are successfully driving trans fat consumption to lower levels,” lest the food supply be significantly disrupted and consumers “unjustifiably denied access to products such as baked goods, pastries, confectioneries, some flavors, seasonings and many other products.”

A similar sentiment was voiced by Mark B. Andon, Ph.D., vice-president, research, quality and innovation at ConAgra Foods, Omaha, who contended that dropping the GRAS status of PHOs “would place potentially thousands of food products at risk of being deemed adulterated due to the presence of an ingredient that has been safely and commonly used in foods for over 50 years.”

The food giant General Mills likewise expressed the opinion that “current low intakes of trans fat are safe” and suggested that a level of trans fat below 0.2 grams per serving either be established as the new “zero” (as did the American Bakers Association) or become a “threshold limit.”

Then there’s Matt Jansen, senior vice-president of Archer Daniels Midland Co. and president of ADM’s global oilseeds and cocoa business, whose concern is that a PHO ban “would inevitably lead to increased use of fats and oils higher in saturated fatty acids, making it more difficult for consumers to comply with the Dietary Guidelines recommendations on saturated fat intake.” (At about the same time he said that, a comprehensive review of 72 studies from 18 countries undertaken by researchers from Britain’s University of Cambridge determined that saturated fats do not pose a cardiovascular risk after all.)

We could go on, but you get the idea.  Despite its claims to have significantly reduced the levels of PHOs in the American diet, it’s plain to see that Big Food is still very much addicted to these non-nutritive preservatives of product shelf life – and either doesn’t care or refuses to acknowledge that they are shortening the actual lives of thousands of customers every year.  And the FDA’s present procrastination could  well be an indication that it’s causing the agency to rethink its bold proposal of last November.

But there is one thing you can do to influence the food industry to completely remove this health hazard from its products – and, in the process, to be your own watchdog instead of relying on reluctant regulators. It’s to read those ingredient labels carefully and if you see “partially hydrogenated” anything, don’t buy the product – whether or not its tran fat listing is zero.

If it convinced more people to do that, the New York Department of Health and Public Hygiene deserves to be commended – even though the results of its study are really “old news.”