On the face of it, the FDA’s proposal to revoke the GRAS status of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) - the source of most of the ‘artificial’ trans fats in the US food supply - seems like a no-brainer. But there are other ways to crack down on trans fats without causing formulation nightmares, claims the American Bakers Association.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the IFT show in New Orleans, ABA senior vice president government relations & public affairs, Lee Sanders, said that we tend to think of PHOs as frying oils, or hard fats used for baking.
But a blanket ban would also have the “unintended consequence” of rendering several technical/functional ingredients that contribute trace amounts of trans fats to finished foods - but are critical to bakers - as illegal, she said.
"There are uses of PHOs that FDA wasn't aware of."
For example, some PHOs used to encapsulate bioactives or protect heat sensitive substances contribute “negligible amounts of trans fat to the daily diet” but have “no functionally equivalent replacements”.
Meanwhile, some PHOs are used as starting materials for ingredients such as mono- and di-glycerides, which also contribute only trace amounts of trans fat to finished products, she added.
The law of unintended consequences
Similarly, while interesterification (where the structure of oils is chemically or enzymatically re-arranged in order to give it different properties) is often touted as an alternative to partial hydrogenation as a means of making liquid oils more solid, “most people don’t know that the source oils used in the interesterification process are often modified by hydrogenation before the process is performed”, Sanders told FoodNavigator-USA.
The resulting structured fats are not PHOs, but if PHOs used as starting materials are no longer GRAS, ”then industry will not be able to use these to produce some of these interesterified fats”, she said.
From a legal perspective, meanwhile, has the FDA presented compelling evidence that further reductions of trans-fat below current intakes will make such a material difference to the risk of coronary heart disease that regulatory action is justified? she asked.
There are practical alternatives to blanket PHO ban
So what, if anything, should the FDA do?
One option is that the FDA could declare certain uses of PHOs as GRAS, particularly where such uses contribute negligible amounts of trans fat to the diet, she said. It could also:
1 - Change the ‘rounding rule’ for declaring trans fats on the Nutrition Facts Panel (which allows firms to state ‘0g trans fat’ if a food contains less than 0.5g/serving). Instead, FDA could change the rules such that firms could only make this claim if their products contain less than 0.2g per serving.
2 - Establish nutrient content claims for trans fat and establish disclosure and disqualifying levels for trans fat.
3 - Set specifications for the quantity or percentage of trans fat in the total fat in finished foods or set specifications for the percentage of trans fat allowed in PHOs.
4 - Declare certain uses of PHOs as GRAS, particularly where such uses contribute negligible amounts of trans fat to the diet (e.g., emulsifiers such as mono- and di-glycerides, encapsulates, colors, flavors, spices, processing aids) or because they are in infrequently-consumed foods (e.g., ready-to-use frostings, fillings, coatings).