The Obama administration is ordering food companies to phase out the artery-clogging trans fats that can lead to heart disease, the country's leading cause of death.
The Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday that it would require food makers to stop using trans fats — found in processed foods like pie crusts, frostings and microwave popcorn — over the next three years.
The health community applauded the decision, saying eliminating trans fats could help prevent fatal heart attacks and other cardiovascular health problems, but some manufacturers said they would need to scramble to find replacements while maintaining product consistency.
Scientific research has long shown there are no health benefits to the fats, which are used in processing food and in restaurants, usually to improve texture, shelf life or flavor. They can raise levels of "bad" cholesterol and lower "good" cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease.
"Trans fats are double trouble for your heart," said Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen. "We have known since the early 2000s that no amount of trans fat is safe."
Baltimore banned trans fat in prepared foods in 2008, but those manufacturing packaged food products were allowed to continue using trans fat-bearing partially hydrogenated oils.
Under the FDA's ban, the makers of some of the city's most beloved confections, including Berger cookies and Otterbein's cookies, would have to come up with alternatives to trans fats.
Ben Otterbein, the general manager of Otterbein's, said the trans fat in the company's cookies comes from margarine, which is listed as an ingredient in all five cookie varieties, including lemon, chocolate chip and ginger.
Otterbein said he didn't yet know what kind of impact the ban would have on the company. Alternative fats like butter are more expensive, he said.
"We got word today and we have yet to sit down and have a conversation about it," said Otterbein, declining to give his thoughts on the ban.
The fats are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid, which is why they are often called partially hydrogenated oils.
Though trans fats were once a staple of the American diet, many food companies have already eliminated them, either voluntarily or because of bans by local or state governments. Between 2003 and 2012, people ate about 78 percent less trans fat as food companies began using other kinds of oils to replace them, the FDA said.
But some products still contain them, and the FDA says those trans fats remaining in the food supply create a health concern. Among the foods that commonly contain trans fats: frostings, pie crusts, biscuits, microwave popcorn, coffee creamers, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, vegetable shortenings and stick margarines.
To phase the fats out, the FDA made a preliminary determination in 2013 that partially hydrogenated oils no longer fall in the agency's "generally recognized as safe" category, which covers thousands of additives that manufacturers can put in foods without FDA review. The agency made that decision final Tuesday, giving food companies until June 2018 to phase them out.
Now that trans fats are off the list of safe additives, any company that wants to use them will have to petition the agency to allow it. That could phase them out almost completely, since the FDA is not likely to deem many uses as safe.
Still, food companies are hoping for some exceptions. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the main trade group for the food industry, is working with companies on a petition that would formally ask the FDA if it can say there is a "reasonable certainty of no harm" from some specific uses of the fats. It provided no specifics.
But the association said in a statement that the FDA's three-year compliance period "minimizes unnecessary disruptions to commerce."
Charles DeBaufre Jr., who owns the bakery in Baltimore that makes the Berger cookie, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. In 2013, he panned the idea of switching to an alternative to the shortening used in the iconic cookies, saying that if the ban went through, "I'd have to lock the door."
Bill Buppert, the owner of the Baltimore company that makes Mary Sue candies, called the ban "a long time coming," saying his company has been slowly removing trans fats from the candies in anticipation of the ban.
Buppert said only one ingredient used in some candies, a colored chocolate, now contains trans fat. Partially hydrogenated oils help with shelf life and stability, but he said fully hydrogenated oil, which does not contain trans fat, is a good alternative.
"It's a little more expensive but will help us achieve the same results," he said. "It's not a major headache for us."
Buppert said he supported the ban on trans fats, saying the evidence pointing to its harm was clear.
"What's ironic ... is they were created 30, 40 years ago because they were supposed to be better for you, and now you find out they're not," he said of trans fats. "We try and stick to the basics that they were using 50 years ago before trans fats were around."
Trans fats are widely considered the worst kind of fats for your heart, even worse than saturated fats, which also can contribute to heart disease. Over the years, they have been used in foods that need solid fat for texture, or in those that need a longer shelf life or flavor enhancement. They also have been used by restaurants for frying.
Consumers aren't likely to notice much of a difference in their favorite foods.
"This allows us to get back to the wholesome basic foods that we know are good for us," said Kathleen Parkman, a registered dietitian in the bariatric surgery program at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
She said the ban takes out the guesswork for consumers who may find food labels complicated and have a hard time choosing healthy foods on their own.
"The hardest thing is when you go to a restaurant and you think you're making a good choice, but you don't know what actual ingredients they are using," Parkman said.
The industry's reduction in trans fats was helped along by the FDA's decision to force labeling of trans fats on food packages in 2006. But foods that list trans fat content as zero still can have trace amounts, since companies are allowed to round less than half of a gram of trans fat to zero on the package label.
Susan Mayne, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said those hidden amounts can "add up to a considerable intake of trans fats if you look at the overall diet."
For now, the agency is recommending that consumers take a look at ingredient lists on packaged foods to make sure they don't contain partially hydrogenated oils. Once the three-year compliance period is up, none of those ingredients would be allowed unless the FDA specifically approves them.
The advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest first petitioned the FDA to ban trans fats 11 years ago. The group's director, Michael Jacobson, said the decision to phase them out "is probably the single most important thing the FDA has ever done for the healthfulness of the food supply."
The FDA has not targeted small amounts of trans fats that occur naturally in some meat and dairy products, because they would be too difficult to remove and aren't considered a major public health threat by themselves.