Artificial trans fat — a food ingredient linked to heart disease — will soon be gone from grocery aisles.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday called for the food industry to phase out artificial trans fat within three years. The announcement caps more than a decade of action by consumer watchdogs, regulators and eventually the food industry itself to remove the artery-clogging ingredient.
"This puts the final nail in the coffin of artificial trans fat," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., food watchdog group in the vanguard for exiling trans fat. "It's been a long time coming."
The FDA's ruling will attract particular attention in Minnesota, home to several major food companies — including General Mills and Hormel Foods — that have been reformulating products for years to ax trans fat. General Mills says less than 5 percent of all its food offerings list trans fat as an ingredient; Hormel has even less.
"Certainly, the food industry has been preparing for this," said Bob Wainwright, a senior food scientist at Minnetonka-based Cargill, which is a major ingredient supplier. "What remains ahead for the food industry — and for Cargill as a supplier — is to reduce what trans fat remains out there."
Still, even with the new ruling, food companies can petition the FDA for its blessing to use trans fat under certain circumstances. The packaged food industry's trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said Tuesday it would do just that.
The FDA unveiled its finalization of a rule originally announced in November 2013, which calls for partially hydrogenated oils to no longer be "generally recognized as safe," or "GRAS," an important regulatory definition. Partially hydrogenated oils — which are usually made from vegetable sources — are the primary source of trans fat in processed food.
The FDA ruling covers partially hydrogenated oils in all foods, whether they are sold in supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries or anywhere else. It does not apply to naturally occurring trans fats that are found in some meat and dairy products.
Trans fat has long been added to processed foods to give them structure — the flakiness of a pie crust, for instance — and to extend their shelf life.
"It has become clear that what's good for extending shelf life is not equally good for extending human life," Susan Mayne, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, wrote on her blog. She wrote that the FDA's kibosh on trans fat "is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks each year."
While the FDA estimates trans fat consumption decreased 78 percent from 2003 through 2012, partially hydrogenated oils can still be found in some frostings, microwave popcorn, packaged pies, frozen pizzas, stick margarines and coffee creamers, the agency said.
Scientific evidence against trans fat built in the 1990s, and consumer advocacy groups pushed for its banishment. In 2003, the FDA finalized a rule requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat content on the "Nutrition Facts" panel, a federally mandated label on almost all packaged foods.
The FDA gave the industry until 2006 before the rule went into effect, sparking a flurry of voluntary product reformulations by packaged food companies.
During the same year, New York became the first city to ban trans fat in cooking oils used in restaurants. The restaurant industry got religion, too, with fast-food giant McDonald's in 2007 switching to trans fat-free canola oil — developed by Cargill — for its French fries.
Edina-based Dairy Queen said Tuesday it began eliminating trans fat from its menu more than four years ago, but still has minor amounts of the stuff in a "small percentage" of items. Golden Valley-based Buffalo Wild Wings said it has been working since 2013 to remove partially hydrogenated oils from its menu, though it has a "limited number of items" that still need a trans fat fix.
"Companies realized this was an obsolete ingredient that they needed to get out of their products," said Jacobson, the food industry watchdog. He said the industry produces an estimated 1 billion to 2 billion pounds of trans fat today, compared with 8 billion pounds a decade ago — "an enormous change."
So what trans fat is left out there? First, there's the obvious trans fat.
For instance, General Mills lists trans fat as an ingredient on the Nutrition Facts label for less than 5 percent of its portfolio, primarily in baking products. Betty Crocker chocolate frosting and Bisquick Complete Buttermilk Biscuit mix both contain at least 2 grams of trans fat per serving, according to product labels.
Then there's the not-so-obvious trans fat. The FDA has allowed food companies to declare zero trans fat in a product, even if that product has trace amounts — i.e., less than 0.5 grams per serving. The new FDA rule would appear to end that exemption, which could force companies to further reformulate products. It won't be easy.
"Our ingredient suppliers have found the removal of partially hydrogenated oils to be technically challenging," Marshall-based Schwan Food Co. said in a statement, echoing other foodmakers' concerns. Still, Schwan, maker of frozen pizza, ice cream and other foods, said it's committed to eliminating partially hydrogenated oils by the end of 2015.
The food industry and individual food companies can petition the FDA to use trans fat in some products, and still be considered "generally recognized as safe."
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) said Tuesday is developing a petition seeking FDA approval for limited and specific uses of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs).
"GMA is pleased that FDA has acted in a manner that both addresses FDA's concerns and minimizes unnecessary disruptions to commerce," the group said in a statement. "GMA will work in collaboration with FDA to further reduce PHOs in foods."