The long war on trans fats may be drawing to a close.
The government proposed new rules Thursday that would all but ban the artery-clogging fats, a move that will force makers of margarine, frozen pizza and other processed foods to reformulate their products.
Under the new rules, the Food and Drug Administration has declared that partially hydrogenated oils, the source of trans fats, are a food additive no longer "generally recognized as safe."
That would require companies wishing to use the ingredient to first seek approval from the FDA, which is unlikely to grant permission given the volume of research linking trans fats to heart disease.
"The FDA's action today is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat," said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg.
Hamburg estimates an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths could be prevented each year by further reducing the use of trans fats.
Cities and states have been ahead of the federal government in seeking to eliminate trans fats. New York City voted to ban most artificial trans fats in restaurants in 2006. California became the first state to move to ban the ingredient from restaurants in 2008.
Still, the proposal could force thousands of businesses to switch to more healthful ingredients. The FDA rule is now subject to a 60-day comment period but is expected to be adopted.
Trans fats are vegetable oils that have been mixed with hydrogen to increase shelf life and mimic the flavor and feel of butter or lard. In coffee creamers, trans fats create creaminess. In crackers, trans fats create a buttery or flaky texture.
But research shows the ingredient is harmful to human health by raising levels of LDL cholesterol -- the bad kind. Transfat consumption also depresses levels of HDL cholesterol, which is considered protective against heart disease.
"Getting trans fats out of the food supply is one of the most important things the FDA can do to save lives," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has sued fast-food chains for using hydrogenated oils. "This is a biggie, and the FDA deserves a pat on the back."
This marks the first time since 1969 the FDA has declared a food additive unsafe for consumption. Back then, the agency targeted cyclamate — a potent artificial sweetener found to increase bladder cancer, liver damage and birth defects in rats.
The federal government has required labeling of trans fats on food sold in grocery stores since 2006. And health campaigns have targeted Americans with messages to reduce their intake.
Restaurants have responded to the pressure. Yum Brands, owner of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, ditched trans fats from its cooking oils in 2007. McDonald's and Burger King followed in 2008. Unilever, the world's leading maker of margarine, eliminated the ingredient in all its spreads this year.
The result is that daily per capita consumption of hydrogenated oils in the U.S. plunged to one gram in 2012 from 4.3 grams in 2003.
Still, the ingredient remains in some foods such as frosting and shortening, which require hydrogenated oil to maintain their semi-solid consistency. Restaurants sometimes deep-fry food in oil with trans fat because it has a longer shelf life.
General Mills, owner of Betty Crocker and Pillsbury, said it had taken the trans fat out of more than 90% of its U.S. retail products. It pledged Thursday to eliminate the rest in response to the FDA's proposed rules.
"This is a major development, and food companies will need to quickly consider and respond to this request," General Mills said in a statement Thursday. "We will … need to move to respond quickly to the FDA on this question, and we will."
Despite declines, consumer watchdogs and health advocates have still been pressuring heavy users of the heart-clogging grease.
In July, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the fried fish, hush puppies and onion rings in the Long John Silver's Big Catch meal contained 33 grams of trans fat. That's more than two weeks' worth based on the American Heart Assn.'s recommendation of two grams daily, according to the CSPI. The group called the offering the "worst restaurant meal in America."
Long John Silver's said in August that it would be trans fat free by the end of the year in an effort to become a "contemporary, relevant seafood brand."
Joan McGlockton, vice president of industry affairs and food policy for the National Restaurant Assn., said in a statement that the group planned "to discuss the impact of this proposal on the industry and submit comments" as well as "continue to work with our members and the manufacturing supply chain to address any new federal standards that may arise out of this process."
Consumer sentiment on trans fats is not uniform, even with the clear health dangers.
A new Pew Research Center survey found a majority of Americans oppose rules prohibiting trans fats in restaurants. Among 996 respondents, 52% were not in favor of a ban, 44% were in favor, and 4% did not know.
Some consumer groups accused the FDA of meddling too much in the food supply.
"Government paternalism is frustrating, especially when the government blurs the line between unhealthy and unsafe," said J. Justin Wilson, senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom. "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."
Times staff writer Melissa Healy contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun