Artificial trans fats will be phased out of processed foods, from microwave popcorn to frozen pizza, to prevent fatal heart attacks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says.
The U.S. regulator announced Tuesday that partially hydrogenated oils that raise levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol and lower "good" cholesterol will be significantly reduced in the food supply.
The Institute of Medicine has concluded that there is no safe level for consumption of trans fat.
Between 2003 and 2012, the FDA said trans fat consumption by consumers in the U.S. decreased an estimated 78 per cent as food companies turned to other oils. The FDA said current intake "remains a public health concern" in its final decision to declare artificial trans fats are not "generally recognized as safe" to add to foods without regulatory approval.
Manufacturers will have three years to remove trans fat from foods that still commonly contain it, such as pie crusts, biscuits, microwave popcorn, coffee creamers, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, vegetable shortenings and stick margarines.
Partially hydrogenated oils are formed during food processing when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid.
To avoid trans fats, the food industry has shifted toward other oils.
"What we replaced it with is pretty benign," said Wanda Beaver of Wanda's Pie in the Sky in Toronto. "It's canola or soy."
Major failing of public policy
Michael Jacobson, director of the U.S. Center for Science in the Public Interest, called the FDA's decision to phase out trans fats "probably the single most important thing the FDA has ever done for the healthfulness of the food supply."
The FDA has not targeted small amounts of trans fats that occur naturally in some meat and dairy products, because they would be too difficult to remove and aren't considered a major public health threat by themselves.
Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest in Ottawa, said Tuesday that Canadian consumers may benefit indirectly from the U.S. move if American exports are as safe as those produced for domestic consumption.
In Canada, documents obtained by Jeffery's group show the federal government planned to limit the trans fat content of vegetable oils and soft, spreadable margarines to two per cent of the total fat content and all other foods to five per cent. The announcement was never made.
Jeffrey is concerned that the federal government is ignoring the scientific consensus on the hazards of trans fat with a wait-and-see approach.
"We were one of the countries that had the highest rates of consumption of trans fat in the world, and so it's incumbent on us to be ahead of the curve," Jeffrey said.
As recently as 2009, Health Canada said about 1,000 people died prematurely from trans-fat related heart attack deaths every year.
"We don't know what current intake is, because Health Canada stopped measuring it. To me that's a pretty major failing of public policy — to stop even monitoring something that is identified as a major public health risk is very problematic."
The Canadian and U.S. markets are integrated to a large extent, especially for processed foods, Health Minister Rona Ambrose told reporters in Ottawa.
"We're going to have to look at what they're doing on trans fat and see how that will affect not only our industry but our labels as well," she said.
Health Canada stopped monitoring trans fat levels in the food supply in 2009, researchers say. The same year, British Columbia's government essentially banned trans fat in restaurants, and Manitoba and Ontario governments outlawed it in foods sold in schools, Jeffery noted.