Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took a step towards eliminating most trans fat from the American food supply, but a move to ban trans fats has not yet been enacted in Canada.        

The FDA determined that a major source of trans fat — partially hydrogenated oils — can no longer be classified as safe for consumption, meaning they will have to be slowly phased out.

"While consumption of potentially harmful artificial trans fat has declined over the last two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern," FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg said. 

Trans fats (or trans-isomer fatty acids) are a type of unsaturated fat which is not generally found in nature but can be created artificially. They are used in some food products to add flavour and texture, but trans fats have been linked to major health problems like coronary heart disease.

The FDA estimates that trans fat causes 5,000 premature heart attack deaths a year in the U.S. -- in Canada that may translate into 500 preventable deaths a year.             

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, has been campaigning for decades to reduce the use of trans fat in prepared foods.

He welcomes the change.

“If the FDA finalizes its tentative decision, most food companies would replace hydrogenated oil, the source of the trans fat, with a healthier oil,” he said in an interview with CBC’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange.

Some companies have objected to the proposed change, saying consumers are free to avoid those foods that contain trans fats. But others have eliminated hydrogenated oils voluntarily, as a way of attracting consumers.

With the health risks now well-known, it is time for the FDA to act,  Jacobson said. 

“Government traditionally has been charged with protecting the public from risks, especially unnecessary risks,” he said.

Companies could ask for exemption, but most are likely just remove the fats, he said, adding that about 75 per cent of trans fats have been removed successfully over the last 10 years.

He said restaurants chains such as Long John Silver’s and Church’s Chicken removed trans fats from their cooking process after the Centre for Science in the public Interest threatened to sue them.

“A lot of times, it’s just a matter of a company needing to invest a little bit of time and possibly experimentation in getting rid of it and replacing it with something healthier,” Jacobson said.

In Canada, there was a 2006 recommendation that Health Canada end use of trans fats, but government has not acted.

“It’s a crying shame. Governments should be more proactive and this is easy because there are substitutes,” he said.