FDA Targets Trans Fats and Officially Bans PHOs from Foods


With commentary by Dennis Keefe, Ph.D., director of the FDA's office of food additive safety

In a move that many health care practitioners consider long overdue, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced today that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs)— the most widely used artificial trans fat — pose too much of a health risk to be used as an ingredient in foods. Consumption of PHOs is linked to coronary heart disease and thousands of fatal heart attacks each year, according to the FDA. 

trans fatsIn a 2013 media briefing, the then FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg cited statistics from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention that stated “removing PHOs from processed foods could prevent as many as 20,000 additional heart attacks and up to 7,000 additional coronary deaths each year.”

Food manufacturers have until June 18, 2018 to remove all PHOs from their foods in order to be complaint with the new FDA ruling. Those who don’t comply will face criminal violations.

While initiatives for how the FDA will track compliance are still being developed, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael R. Taylor, J.D., says consumers shouldn’t be worried about whether or not companies will comply. “We don’t generally have a problem with compliance. We expect ready compliance.”

How to Identify a PHO

While the ban on unhealthy trans fats is no doubt welcome, three years is a long time to wait to avoid an ingredient that can clog your arteries and potentially kill you. "Do yourself a favor now and learn which foods are most likely to have PHOs, and take the time to read labels," says EndocrineWeb Medical Advisory Board Member Amy Hess-Fischl, MS, RDN, LDN, BC-ADM, CDE.

How to spot PHOs: “Walk down any grocery store aisle and you will find them in baked goods, crackers, margarine, pastries,” says Dennis Keefe, Ph.D., director of the office of food additive safety in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. PHOs can also be found in frozen foods, coffee creamers and refrigerated dough used for biscuits and cinnamon rolls. Their main use is to help keep processed food shelf stable — essentially, to increase how long the food can sit on a supermarket shelf or refrigerator or freezer case without spoiling.

The good news is that in 2006, companies began being required to list trans fats on their nutrition facts information. This coincided with increased education around how artificial trans fats could cause harm — and as a result, some food manufacturers began removing PHOs from their food, and public consumption of trans fats began to drop. In fact, according to the FDA, people were eating 78 fewer trans fats in 2012 compared to 2003. However, it’s important to note that when a food that has less than 0.5 grams of trans fats the company can declare their food “trans-fat free.” As an added measure, you can check the ingredient label to make sure it doesn’t also list “partially hydrogenated oils”—if it does, then you’re getting trans fats. 

And while the PHO ban will help to considerably lower the occurrence of trans fats in foods, there’s no way to completely avoid them because they occur naturally in dairy, meat and also show up in smaller amounts in oils that are considered safe to consume, according to Susan Mayne, Ph.D., Director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. 

Safe alternatives to PHOs?

Companies who want to use PHOs in specific amounts can submit a food additive petition to the FDA for approval. But most companies—if they aren’t already—are in the process of reformulating their foods with different types of modified oils that are considered safe to consume. “One of the things we want to avoid in any way is directing industry toward one solution. We think this is a great opportunity for innovation,” says Taylor.

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