In yet another heavy-handed move by the Obama administration, the Food and Drug Administration is proposing a ban on trans fats within the nation’s food industry after a determination that they are no longer considered safe to eat. According to an FDA report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a further reduction of trans fats in the food supply can prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year. The FDA says trans fats can be found in such processed foods as cookies, cakes, frozen pies, and other baked goods; snack foods such as microwave popcorn; frozen pizza; vegetable shortenings and stick margarines; coffee creamers; and refrigerated dough products such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls.
The agency’s decision will significantly impact the vegetable oil market, including the soybean oil market. The agency has made a tentative determination to rescind the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status for partially hydrogenated oils (PHO), including partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (PHVO). The process of partially hydrogenating vegetable oils to make them more stable for certain baking, frying, or food applications has taken place since the 1930s, a process that results in the formation of some trans fats. Due to indications that increased consumption of trans fats may negatively affect coronary health, the FDA started requiring in 2006 that food nutrition panels identify the amount of trans fat in food products.
In response to today’s notice by the FDA, Mississippi soybean farmer and ASA President Danny Murphy issued the following statement: “The vast majority of soybean oil consumed is not partially hydrogenated and is free of trans fats, so consumers can be assured of the continued safety and healthfulness of soybean oil and the many food products that contain it. It’s also important to remember that soybean oil is a very healthy oil that is high in poly-unsaturated fats and has high levels of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.”
Murphy pointed out that since 2003 the soybean industry has been aggressively developing soy oil that contains no trans fats, “According to the FDA’s own analysis, average consumer consumption of trans fats has fallen by more than 70 percent in the past decade. We’ve replaced the functional characteristics that some baking and frying applications needed from partially hydrogenated oils through blending of various oils, the blending of fully hydrogenated soybean oil (which does not contain any trans fats) with liquid soybean and other oils, and other processes that reduce or eliminate trans fats.”
Murphy added that seed and technology companies within the soybean industry have developed soybean varieties that are high in heart-healthy high oleic fatty acids and eliminate the need for partial hydrogenation. These high-oleic soybean oil varieties enable food companies to get the functionality they desire for flavor stability, texture, and other important characteristics while avoiding the tradeoff to higher saturated fat or trans fat levels that comes with using palm oil or partially hydrogenated oil for stability. “The soy checkoff is working closely with these companies to accelerate the commercialization of these high oleic soybean varieties, and we expect to have significant quantities of high oleic soybean oil available in the marketplace by 2016,” he said.
Given the amount of progress that has been accomplished by the private sector, Murphy questioned the need for the FDA action, “Given that the food and vegetable oil industries have already moved to greatly reduce trans fats in food products and in Americans’ diets, we do have questions about the need for FDA to take this proposed action. Further, we have concerns that if the FDA were to finalize this determination, food processors may be pressured to replace remaining partially hydrogenated oils with those high in saturated fat such as palm or coconut oils, which would not be a good outcome for consumers. Finally, 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.”
The New York Times reports that the proposal will be open for public comment for 60 days. The FDA would then declare that partially hydrogenated oils, the source of trans fats, were no longer “generally recognized as safe.” Companies would then have to prove that partially hydrogenated oils were safe. ASA said it will respond to the FDA during the comment period.