In November 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published its tentative determination to revoke the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status for partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which are the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat. As explained in a recent FDA update, “If FDA determines that PHOs are not GRAS, it could, in effect, mean the end of artificial, industrially-produced trans fat in foods.”
The FDA would be taking the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act of 1938 into novel areas that are unrelated to the food safety issues that the law is designed to regulate. It would do so by regulating nutrition and diet through limiting food choices. Thus, the agency is trying to conflate nutritional and dietary well-being with “safety.” This action is extreme and unwarranted.
A Solution in Search of a Problem
In 2003, the average intake of trans fat from products containing PHOs was 4.6 grams per day per person, or 2 percent of energy based on a 2,000-calorie diet. This number plummeted to only 1 gram per day, or 0.5 percent of energy, in 2012, a massive 78 percent reduction. Further, there is no evidence of this decline stopping, with a still very strong 23 percent reduction from 2010 to 2012.
The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 2 grams of trans fat a day (1 percent of a 2,000-calorie diet), which includes both artificial and natural trans fat consumption.
Current artificial trans fat consumption is already about half of that number. Even if natural trans fat consumption—which the FDA estimated to be about 1.2 grams in 2003—is added to the total, trans fat consumption would still be around the total recommended limit.
Even so, it is inappropriate to consider both natural and artificial trans fat together, because there is currently insufficient evidence that natural trans fat is associated with coronary heart disease. There is some research showing potential health problems with natural trans fat, but there is a significant amount of research that shows no association or even an inverse association.
Research Does Not Demonstrate Harm at the Current Low Intake Levels
The FDA claims that trans fat consumption is harmful at any level, that any incremental increase in trans fat consumption increases low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C, i.e. “bad cholesterol”) concentrations, which is one of the major risk factors for coronary heart disease.
Current average consumption of artificial trans fat (0.5 percent of energy) and total trans fat (approximately 1 percent of energy) is much lower than at the levels where harm has been identified in the research. In its comment to the FDA, the Grocery Manufacturers Association argued:
[T]he evidence does not support a conclusion that any increase in percent energy intake from trans fat (above zero) leads to a significant increase in LDL cholesterol. Observational and intervention data summarized here suggest that trans intake below 2% total energy does not appear to result in a significant impact on total and LDL cholesterol, the validated surrogate biomarkers for cardiovascular disease.
Research Does Not Recommend Zero Consumption of Artificial Trans Fat
The Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) 2005 Dietary Reference Intake report and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 both recommend that trans fat consumption should be as low as possible. Neither recommends that individuals should seek to consume zero trans fat, artificial or natural. Yet the FDA is trying to eliminate the consumption of artificial trans fat.
The IOM report, which the FDA heavily relies on, goes even further to indicate that a zero trans fat diet would have undesirable outcomes:
Because trans fatty acids are unavoidable in ordinary, nonvegan diets, consuming 0 percent of energy would require significant changes in patterns of dietary intake. As with saturated fatty acids, such adjustments may introduce undesirable effects (e.g., elimination of commercially prepared foods, dairy products, and meats that contain trans fatty acids may result in inadequate intakes of protein and certain micronutrients) and unknown and unquantifiable health risks.
The IOM is referring to problems caused by eliminating both artificial trans fat (when mentioning commercially prepared foods) and natural trans fat (when mentioning dairy products and meats). Yet, in the tentative determination, the FDA describes the IOM quote cited above as indicating only that eliminating natural trans fat would be problematic, not artificial trans fat.
It remains unclear which ingredients would replace artificial trans fat if they were eliminated. By not addressing the likely impact on food reformulation and individual diets, the FDA could very well be creating more health problems that it would allegedly be solving.
Consumers could choose different foods to eat as a result of reformulation making the products less palatable—trans fat improves taste, texture, and increases shelf life, among other benefits that the FDA ignores. The replacement products consumed by individuals could lead to an overall diet that is worse than their current diet.
There is also ever-changing knowledge regarding nutrition. Removing an ingredient from the food supply may later turn out to have been based on flawed science. Ironically, the current use of trans fat was a response to previous efforts to demonize alternative ingredients, such as saturated fats, by some activist groups. The federal government’s experience making mistakes regarding dietary decisions (e.g., 1992 food pyramid encouraging carbohydrate consumption, not distinguishing between fats) should give the FDA pause.
What Congress Should Do
- Congress should not view this issue as merely about trans fat. This issue is much broader and is about the FDA’s powers under the FD&C Act. While it is unlikely that the FDA would seek to ban caffeine, sugar, and sodium that is added to food, these added ingredients are likely to be targets of future regulation. It may start through voluntary measures, but that would be the first step toward mandatory regulation.
- Congress should amend the FD&C Act to clarify that the FDA is not authorized to regulate food ingredients based on chronic diseases connected to individual dietary choices and nutrition: Unhealthy is not the same as unsafe. When it comes to diet, chronic diseases may be caused by numerous factors that could have nothing to do with a specific food ingredient.
Individuals do not need the FDA to protect them from themselves. This is precisely what the de facto artificial trans fat ban is trying to accomplish. When trying to address chronic disease connected to dietary choices through regulation, the FDA would inevitably be forced to restrict or limit food availability and the personal choices that individuals freely make on their own. No government body or agency should ever have that kind of power.
—Daren Bakst is a Research Fellow in Agricultural Policy in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.