Trans Fats: FDA Sets Deadline

The Food and Drug Administration recently finalized its determination that artificial trans fats are not “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, for use in human food. Best Food Facts Registered Dietitian Sarah Downs breaks down this ruling and what it means for the food system.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They are responsible for ensuring the safety and security of drugs, medical devices, vaccines, food supply, cosmetics, dietary supplements, products that give off electronic radiation and tobacco products.


The FDA has finalized its determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of artificial trans fats in processed foods, are not “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. Companies will have three years to remove artificial trans fats from their products. They may petition the FDA for a food additive permit (FAP) to use trans fats and the agency will assess whether there is a “reasonable certainty of no harm” associated with the uses defined in the petition.


Food companies will have three years to remove artificial trans fats from their products. This will allow companies to either reformulate products or submit a petition to the FDA to permit specific uses of PHOs. Following the compliance period, no trans fats can be added to human food unless they are otherwise approved by the FDA.


The FDA has ruled that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. This decision comes from extensive research into the effects of PHOs and input from numerous influential stakeholders.

In 2009, a heart disease researcher filed a petition with the FDA to request a ban on trans fats in the food industry. In 2013, the agency made a tentative ruling that trans fats were no longer safe based on years of public comment and scientific review. The FDA Commissioner at the time, Margaret A. Hamburg, MD, stated, “The FDA’s action today is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat. Further reduction in the amount of trans fat in the American diet could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year – a critical step in the protection of Americans’ health.”

The agency estimates that between 2003 and 2012, consumer trans fat consumption decreased by about 78 percent. Likely key factors in this decline are the 2006 trans fat mandatory labeling and industry reformulation of foods. Yet, while numbers are at an all-time low, the Institute of Medicine and Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommend that consumption of trans fat be a very small part of a nutritionally-balanced diet. Research has continued to show that eating a diet rich in trans fat is linked to heart disease and memory loss.

What’s Next?

Because food companies will have three years to implement this change, the current labeling standards will remain. Presently, foods are allowed to be labeled as having “0” grams trans fat if they contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. For now, the FDA is advising consumers to look at the ingredients list on packaged foods to make sure they don’t contain partially hydrogenated oils.

It is important to note that there will still be some trans fats in the food supply from those that occur naturally in meat and dairy products. These amounts will not be targeted because the small amount isn’t considered a major public health threat by itself.

Other Questions About this Decision

What will companies use instead?

Food scientists have been working hard to find out how to substitute other fats in many different items. One type of substitution that has shown promise is high-oleic oils. These oils are stable and do not need hydrogenation, thus eliminating trans fats in the resulting product. It will allow food companies to eliminate trans fats and to lower saturated fat content in food without sacrificing flavor.

Will I notice this change in the foods I consume?

From a taste perspective, probably not. PHOs do not have particular flavor and scientists have been working to make substitutions that don’t compromise the taste, texture and shelf life of the food.

Image: “forty ninth parallel” by Kenny Louie is licensed under CC BY 2.0.