As people are thinking about all the fat they are consuming this holiday, the FDA is targeting some bad fats.
Partially hydrogenated oils, once a popular ingredient in baked goods and foods such as frozen pizzas, margarine and ready-to-use frostings because of its ability to increase shelf life, may soon disappear from grocery stores and restaurants for good.
The FDA now believes that PHOs, a man-made oil that was created in the 1930s, pose a serious health risk and can no longer be considered "Generally Regarded As Safe."
The FDA, in the midst of a 60-day comment period to the public, is requesting more information from food manufacturers and consumers before ruling on whether PHOs can remain in our country's food supply. If the FDA finalizes its decision, PHOs will be classified as a food additive, and food manufacturers would need to formally request use of the ingredient.
PHOs are Americans' largest source of trans fat, a dangerous type of fat thought to increase the risk of heart disease. The FDA estimates that by banning partially hydrogenated oils, they might eliminate 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year.
But while the FDA's decision seems to strike at the heart of our nation's sweet tooth and demand for fried foods, local restaurants and grocery stores have been noting a steady decrease in the amount of trans fats and PHOs on our plates driven primarily by customer demand.
"We are certainly aware, since the mid-2000s, of trends toward healthier choices. It behooves us to continue to move in that direction," said Christopher Brand, a spokesperson for Giant Food Stores. "With the trend toward healthier products, this movement away from partially hydrogenated oils was already occurring before the FDA's announcement."
He noted that many suppliers have already altered their ingredients to eliminate PHOs and trans fats, and Giant Food Stores representatives are speaking with suppliers and examining their own store brand products. A ruling by the FDA may simply speed up the process.
"I think it will impact the way many food manufacturers do business. At the same time, there may be many forward-thinking manufacturers who have already made the switch, or are already making changes," said Brand.
He noted that in Giant's store in Lehighton, the area devoted to natural and organic products has doubled in size due to customer demand.
"We are trying to stay ahead of the needs and wants of our customers. I would suspect, like any other food concern that is raised by the FDA, that our consumers are talking about (trans fats and PHOs)," said Brand. "That's a good thing. Feedback makes us better."
Feedback has also led local restaurants to offer healthier options. Because PHOs are found primarily in oils, processed foods and baked goods, some have found that their menus are naturally trans fat free.
"We have a lot of health-conscious customers," said Kristine Islas, assistant manager at the Broadway Grille and Pub. "Everything that we prepare is made fresh, and we don't have anything processed. It's something that we pride ourselves on."
She noted that a change in the FDA's use of PHOs will be a positive change for consumers, who might not take the time to read food labels or realize that products can say "trans fat free" even if it contains a small amount of trans fat.
"I think it's great. People don't realize what they are eating," she said. "Food manufacturers need to be more upfront and let people make their own decisions on what they should eat. Right now, you have to do more research."
This isn't the first time trans fats have been targeted in America. Several cities, including New York City and Baltimore, banned the sale of trans fats in recent years. This led many larger chain restaurants, from McDonalds to Dunkin' Donuts, and some national food brands to reformulate their ingredients to eliminate trans fats with little fanfare.
Thanks in part to this change, the FDA now estimates that the average adult consumes 1.3 grams of trans fat per day; in 2003, they estimates that adults consumed about 4.6 grams per day. Recent studies have indicated that no amount of trans fats or PHOs is safe to consume.