Remember how the FDA sort of banned trans fats by announcing its plan to revoke their GRAS status? (GRAS = Generally Recognized as Safe.) Well, Big Food has another plan. Surprise.
Last November, the FDA said the GRAS standing for trans fats was no longer warranted based on studies linking the fats to serious health issues. Concerns over the negative health effects of trans fats began well more than a decade ago, and resulted in Nutrition Facts label changes in 2006 that gave a break down on the amount of trans fats in food. As a result of the label changes, the agency says trans fat intake in the U.S. declined from 4.6 grams per day in 2003, to just about 1 gram per day in 2012. Now, without GRAS status, consumption rates are even lower. It seemed to be a done deal. No more artery-clogging and heart-disease causing trans fats. Hoorah. But pushback from the processed food industry could soon change all that. You didn’t think they would just give up on such a big money-maker without a fight, did you?
Last month, the American Bakers Association urged the FDA to reconsider its position on trans fats, saying that the ban would have “unintended consequences” for baked goods. According to Food Navigator, bakers use small amounts of partially hydrogenated oils to “encapsulate bioactives or protect heat sensitive substances.”
But beyond the functions the ABA claims makes hydrogenated oils indispensable in some baked goods, the bulk of the ABA’s comment to the FDA “is devoted to arguing that the FDA has failed to prove that the very low levels of trans-fats now consumed by Americans present a safety concern,” reports Food Navigator, “pointing out that the agency’s proposals are based on trans fat consumption levels 10 times higher than current levels.”
Now, the American Soybean Association is also urging the FDA to reconsider its position on revoking GRAS. “We believe that the FDA’s proposal is so sweeping in its application that it would stymie technological advances in oil processing that aren’t even envisioned today,” ASA President Ray Gaesser told Food Navigator. “As there are is no definition of ‘partially hydrogenated’ and as we know that the term encompasses a whole spectrum of oils, we are concerned that new technologies would be a casualty of the FDA’s proposal.”
The ASA is urging the FDA to consider “alternative strategies” such as “education, revisions to the nutrition fact panel, and limits on the amount of trans fats that food products can contain to be labeled free of trans fats.” Isn’t that what the agency already did with the label changes in ’06, and yet still decided it was time to pull the plug on hydrogenated oil?
Found in processed foods including frozen pizzas, crackers, breads, pastries and fried foods, the Mayo Clinic says trans fats both “raises your ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol and lowers your ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol.”
Cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School told Food Navigator that the evidence “makes explicitly clear that such TFA, at any level of consumption, are recognized as quite harmful for coronary heart disease and inflammation, and perhaps also for diabetes and obesity,” he said. “Gram for gram, these effects are more harmful than for any other macronutrient including saturated fat.”
The process of making trans fat involves adding hydrogen to vegetable oil (a process called hydrogenation), which stabilizes the oil, making it less likely to spoil. But adding hydrogen to the oil also makes it more difficult on the body to process without running the risk of negative effects that can kill you (with repeated exposure).
It’s no surprise the ASA and ABA, two of the biggest lobby groups for the food industry, are behind the push to keep trans fats unregulated and considered safe. “The American Soybean Association (ASA) claims to be ‘a non-profit, farmer-controlled organisation working to strengthen soybeans as a viable crop’ but it enjoys a remarkably close relationship with Monsanto and other biotech corporations,” reports LobbyWatch.org.
According to OpenSecrets.org, the ABA’s PAC fund donated 100 percent of its funding in 2014 to Republican candidates. And EatDrinkPolitics.com reports: “Winning the prize for the most frequent visitor to the FDA [over the Food Safety Modernization Act] was Miriam Guggenheim of the law firm Covington & Burling. Thanks to her efforts, members of the American Bakers Association (ABA) will likely be exempt from FSMA’s proposed regulations regulating warehouse temperatures, measures the FDA says “prevent problems that can cause foodborne illness.” The exemption, the ABA press release notes, ‘was allowed under language in FSMA that was included at ABA’s recommendation.’ Well done.”
Is it really a surprise that Big Food lobbies are petitioning the FDA to reconsider its position on trans fats? The groups’ members are the same ones that effectively shut down two GMO labeling bills ( in CA and OR). Their members sue small farmers, pollute water, air and soil, and own patents on seeds that are designed to tolerate high levels of exposure to chemical pesticides and herbicides.
Even though the health risks of trans fats are now universally accepted as dangerous, two of the most powerful food lobby groups stand to lose billions of dollars in sales of processed foods because companies will be forced to reformulate under the FDA’s new rule. Keep in mind too that many of these companies have already reformulated to all but totally remove the smallest amount of trans fats already. (It was legal to say something was “trans fat free” if it contained 0.5 grams or fewer trans fats per serving. Included in that definition are Girl Scout cookies.) It’s yet another reminder that we don’t need factory-made processed foods–even if they only contain a micro amount of trans fats to keep from spoiling. We know this. The companies selling them know this. But hopefully our grandchildren won’t. Hopefully all they’ll know is real food made in kitchens, not in factories. The kind that spoils if you don’t eat it right away. The good kind.
Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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