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FDA moving to ban trans fat from processed foods

Dining and DrinkingRestaurant and Catering IndustryConsumer Goods IndustriesFood and Drug AdministrationRestaurantsConsumers

After buying Fractured Prune Doughnuts in January, Dan Brinton switched to an oil without trans fats to fry the chain's hand-dipped glazed doughnuts.

"It's a little more expensive, but it's certainly worth it as far as I'm concerned," said Brinton, CEO of the growing Ocean City-based chain, on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, the Food and Drug Administration moved to virtually eliminate trans fat, an artificially created artery-clogging substance, from Americans' diets. The move follows a massive effort by food makers and restaurant chains to remove the substance over the past decade, as consumers become more educated about risks and vote for healthier alternatives with their wallets.

The still preliminary proposal by the FDA "has been on the radar for the last six years," Brinton said. "We anticipated this was coming. We were going to do it, and we did it. I'm not opposed to the ban."

And the Fractured Prune's ringed delicacies still melt in your mouth, he said. "It did not change our taste profile."

The FDA has required that nutritional labels break out trans fat content since 2006, a regulation that spurred many companies to alter their recipes.

Trans fats, still used in a number of products from margarine and coffee creamer to frozen pizza, remain a big risk for Americans despite lower consumption over the past 20 years. The primary source of trans fats in the American diet comes from partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fat is produced when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid. Partially hydrogenated oils have been used widely as ingredients since the 1950s, the FDA said.

"While consumption of potentially harmful artificial trans fat has declined over the last two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern," said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, an FDA commissioner.

Trans fats are used mostly for texture and stability — they allow products to last longer on the shelf, preserve flavor, give flakiness to crusts and biscuits and keep peanut butter from separating.

But "trans fats ... may be the worst fats for our heart and overall health," said Alison Massey, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator for Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Trans fats tend to increase bad cholesterol levels, contributing to the buildup of plaque in the arteries and increasing risk for cardiovascular disease, she said.

"I encourage all my patients to consume a diet that is trans-fat-free," Massey said. "There are no benefits to incorporating this particular type of fat into the diet."

The FDA believes that further reduction in the amount of trans fat in Americans' diets could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths a year. The agency has opened a 60-day review period to collect additional data before it moves to ban trans fats. The ban likely would be a gradual process with full compliance expected within a few years.

The FDA says Americans' consumption of trans fats has declined almost 80 percent in the past decade thanks to broader education about their risks, voluntary reduction by food manufacturers and restaurants and some local bans, like New York City's in 2007.

A proposal that would have banned trans fats in Illinois failed in 2011. California became the first state to require restaurants to stop cooking with trans fats in 2008. In Maryland, Montgomery County banished trans fats from prepared foods in 2007, followed by Baltimore city the next year

Safeway made the switch to trans-fat-free bakeries and prepared food several years ago in all its stores, said Greg Ten Eyck, a spokesman. That applies to all the goods baked at Safeway bakeries, such as cakes, cookies and pies, and to items sold in the delicatessen, such as fried chicken, he said.

"We'd seen a lot of jurisdictions were taking a look at banning trans fats," Ten Eyck said. "For health purposes, we looked into alternatives for trans fats, which took a while. Health and wellness is an important principal at Safeway."

Giant Food, the Baltimore area's largest grocer, said its "future actions will be determined by the FDA's final decision" regarding partially hydrogenated oils, said Jamie Miller, a spokesman.

Many restaurants in the state have made a switch to trans-fat-free frying oil, said Melvin Thompson, senior vice president for government affairs and public policy for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

"The only challenges that have remained have been the trans fats used in baked goods, because there have been some challenges with substitute ingredients that retain the same quality, texture and shelf life," he said. "Most of our industry has already started using alternative products."

Mondelez International, a Deerfield, Ill.,-based baker that makes snacks under dozens of brand names including Oreo cookies, Wheat Thins, Triscuits, Fig Newtons and Nilla Wafers, deferred comment to the Grocery Manufacturer's Association, a trade group.

"We look forward to working with the FDA to better understand their concerns and how our industry can better serve consumers," the association said in a statement.

Most major restaurant chains almost completely did away with partially hydrogenated oils in the mid- to late-2000s, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

A handful of chains, such as Carl's Jr., Hardee's and Popeyes, still have menu items that contain some partially hydrogenated oil, according to the watchdog group.

McDonald's uses cooking oil that contains 0 grams of trans fat per serving, but many of its products rank among the 50 foods with the most trans fats kept by the USDA. They include goods such as cinnamon rolls, apple pie, cookies, hotcakes, pancakes and the double quarter pounder with cheese.

McDonald's own nutritional information site shows some of the items listed as high in trans fat by the USDA have been removed from the menu, such as McDonaldland cookies.

Others have been modified or servings have changed. The McDonald's deluxe warm cinnamon roll had the most grams of trans fat per serving in the USDA database at 6.824 gram for a 162 gram serving. McDonald's no longer has that item on its nutritional page, replacing it with Cinnamon Melts, which it says has 0 grams of trans fat for a 114 gram serving.

"Getting rid of artificial trans fat is one of the most important life-saving measures the FDA could take," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.

But a nonprofit coalition of restaurants, food companies and consumers disagreed, calling the step unnecessary in an industry that already took the lead on eliminating trans fats.

"Government paternalism is frustrating, especially when the government blurs the line between unhealthy and unsafe," said J. Justin Wilson, a senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, in a statement. "No one says that trans fats are a health food, but that doesn't mean they need to be effectively banned from the food supply. The government banning certain food items is a dangerous precedent — today it's only trans fats, but what could be next?"

Wilson said it has become difficult to even find foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

"Government regulators shouldn't attempt to eliminate the role that personal responsibility and consumer choice play in our everyday lives," Wilson said. "Consumers told food companies they wanted healthier options, and food makers responded."

An FDA ban would focus on partially hydrogenated oils and would not affect the small amount of naturally occurring trans fat found in some meat and dairy products.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Tribune Newspapers reporters Samantha Bomkamp and Julie Deardorff contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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