Trans fats: The good, the bad, the global

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Mandatory regulation on trans fats has the biggest impact in the global market, says expert and author of WHO global review
Mandatory regulation on trans fats has the biggest impact in the global market, says expert and author of WHO global review

Related tags Trans fats Trans fat

The FDA’s move to consider GRAS status of trans fats should be applauded – it’s a clever move that should spark change, an expert says.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering removing the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) in the US; a move that an expert says should be welcomed, particularly in a global market where regulatory action on trans fats has most impact.

“I think the FDA should be applauded for its bold move to consider removing GRAS status from trans fat,”​ said Shauna Downs, PhD candidate, Menzies Center for Health Policy at the University of Sydney and lead author of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global review on trans fats.

Downs told that the move for the US to focus on GRAS status, rather than introduce an outright ban sets a precedent for other countries.

“Although the trans fat levels in the US have declined since 2006, when mandatory trans fat labeling regulation came into place, there are still products that contain trans fat,”​ she said.

Manufacturers were able to claim zero trans fat when a product contained up to 0.5g trans fat, she explained. “This regulatory loophole meant that many manufacturers continued to use partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), just in smaller quantities. The FDA’s most recent move will close this loophole and ensure that manufacturers discontinue use of PHOs.”

European trans fats laws: A comparison

Across Europe, four countries have outright trans fat bans – Denmark, Austria, Switzerland and Iceland. This means that products in these countries, including imports, must contain no more than 2% trans fat.

However, there remains no pan-European ruling on use, or labeling, of trans fats.

Some European countries, the UK for example, have established voluntary trans fat limits.

“There have been some successes in terms of voluntary removal but the problem in this approach is that not all companies will voluntarily remove the trans fats from their products,”​ Downs said.

It is predominantly the larger companies that are likely to reformulate products, as capacity is stronger than smaller companies, she said. And even then, products with high quantities of trans fats will remain on the market, she added.

“These products tend to be cheaper so there is a possibility that more price conscious consumers will be purchasing foods high in trans fat more frequently.”

For these reasons, mandatory regulation is more effective than voluntary approaches, she added.

A US trans-free future

Downs said that should the FDA move to remove GRAS status from trans fats, manufacturers would be forced into reformulation.

“The good news is that the technology to reformulate products already exists. Several companies have been producing zero trans products for the past few years,”​ she said.

For those companies who have not yet started, she said there are several options – including interesterification, blending of hard fractions like palm oil with soft oils like soybean or canola or simply switching to palm oil or butter.

“It is likely that their decisions on how to reformulate will largely depend on the cost and availability of the alternative oils used and whether these produce the properties required for bakery shortening.”

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