For Trans Fats, the GRAS Is Not Always Greener

For Trans Fats, the GRAS Is Not Always Greener: Main Image
The FDA has proposed removing the "generally recognized as safe" designation for partially hydrogenated fats
The FDA is challenging the processed food industry on its long standing position that trans fats—which are created when fat goes through a process called partial hydrogenation—should be considered “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. Public health experts are applauding the bold move, noting that trans fats are widely considered the worst type of fat for the heart.

How did trans fats end up in my food?

When first introduced to the marketplace, trans fats were believed to be a healthier option than saturated fats. Many people will remember growing up believing that margarine was a healthier choice than butter. Along with the health angle, the initial move to substitute trans for saturated fats comes down to chemistry. Both trans and saturated fats are solid at room temperature, and thus give processed foods an appealing mouth feel and texture. They also impart shelf-stability, so packaged foods stay fresh longer.

Healthier options, such as the poly- and monounsaturated fats found in vegetable, olive, and nut oils are liquid at room temperature. They don’t work well in many of our favorite cookies, cakes, crackers, pizzas, and pies.

Several decades on, however, it has become clear that trans fats aren’t just bad for the heart, they are even worse than the original saturated fats they were designed to replace. Enter the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The move has already begun

Once trans fats were implicated in heart disease, the processed food industry began a voluntary move away from them. Replacing them with trans fat-free options has led the average trans fat intake for Americans to decrease from 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to about 1 gram daily in 2012.

However, the FDA feels this isn’t enough. To ensure the removal of all artificially produced trans fats from the food supply, the agency has proposed the removal of the generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, designation for partially hydrogenated fats, the main source of artificial trans fats in the diet. GRAS applies to food additives that are recognized by qualified experts as safe under conditions of intended use. GRAS substances are not subject to premarket approval and review by the FDA before being added to foods.

On November 7, 2013, a Federal Register notice was published, announcing the proposed removal of GRAS status for partially hydrogenated fats. The proposal is open for a 60-day public comment period, and unless comments are compelling enough to convince the FDA that partially hydrogenated fats are safe, it is likely that this proposal will become official early in 2014.

Tallying trans fats

What should you do until these fats are eliminated from the food supply? Use these tips to help you make the healthiest choices for your family:

  • Go natural. The best way to avoid trans fats is to avoid processed foods. Base your diet around foods that don’t come in a plastic wrapper—vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
  • Read up. Food labeling law allows the nutrition facts panel to list “0 grams trans fat” if the product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. You may eat more than one serving, and if you eat several foods with even a small amount of trans fats, this can add up. Read the ingredient list and pick foods that do not list “partially hydrogenated oil.”
  • Get active. You can flex your political muscle by submitting comments to the FDA in support of the GRAS ban for partially hydrogenated oils. Simply go to the link below and click on the “Submit a Formal Comment” button.
  • Know the difference. Some trans fats naturally occur in high-fat dairy products, and in small amounts, these are not considered harmful to health. Focus on avoiding the processed food trans fats first.

FDA Comment:

(Consumer Updates; FDA Targets Trans Fat in Processed Foods. Available at:

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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