In a Federal Register notice that is unpublished as of 5:44 p.m. EDT on June 16, 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes its final determination that “trans fats” are no longer Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). These partially hydrogenated oils will no longer be allowed in food without being specifically approved as a food additive for a particular use by FDA; the “compliance period” — a grace period after which manufacturers must be in compliance with the rule — will last three years (until June 18, 2018).
Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are industrially produced oils with their hydrogen atoms bound to double-bond carbons on opposite sides of the molecule; this is why they are known as “trans fats.” Naturally occurring fats are also known as “cis-fats,” because their hydrogens are bound to double-bond carbons on the same side of the molecule. Processed food manufacturers developed hydrogenated oils in 1897 in response to the rising cost of butter. Large-scale processed food manufacturers built on this process; the bulk of the margarine marketed as more “heart-healthy” than butter during the 1970s and 1980s contained partially hydrogenated oils.
Rather than being more healthful than butter, PHO consumption has adverse effects on cholesterol levels, fetal development (when expectant mothers consume PHOs), and immune system disorders. FDA has published several documents arguing against the consumption of PHOs; with the soon-to-be-published declaratory order, the agency is taking a major step toward banning the routine use of trans fats. Many Americans are likely unaware of the meaning of GRAS; essentially, this determination allows a substance, such as castoreum, to be used in food products without the manufacturer requesting approval from FDA. Non-GRAS substances can still be added to food products, but must be approved as food additives.