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FDA calls for ban on artery-clogging trans fats in processed foods

November 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Food and Drug Administration says trans fats are not safe and want the substance removed from the food supply. Judy Woodruff speaks with Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Thomas Frieden for more on the health risks linked to the partially hydrogenated fats and the impact the FDA's proposed ban would have on consumers.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s look closer now at the government’s decision to ban artificial trans fats from the American diet.

The Food and Drug Administration says those partially hydrogenated fats are not considered safe in food. Their use has declined substantially in recent years as manufacturers have increasingly removed them, but they are still consumed in significant amounts.

The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Thomas Frieden, has been a leading public health voice on this since he was health commissioner in New York City.

Dr. Frieden, thank you for being with us.

First of all, remind us, what foods contain these trans fats?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Well, first off, artificial trans fats are just that. They’re artificial. They don’t exist in nature. And they’re created by bubbling hydrogen through vegetable oil.

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They make oil solid at room temperature. Unfortunately, it also makes that oil solid in your coronary arteries and increases your risk for a heart attack. The food industry has done a great job. They have gotten about half — a little more than half of the trans fats out of the system, but there’s still a lot in the system.

We’re able to measure that in the studies we do in people throughout the U.S. And it continues in a variety of products, either in low concentrations or some in higher concentrations in things like frosting and some prepared foods. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, again, if — if the manufacturers are already doing a lot to remove or take these out of foods, why is it necessary to go the extra step and require it?

THOMAS FRIEDEN: What we have seen is that there’s been progress, but probably a stall of that progress.

Some groups, places like Wal-Mart, have committed to completely eliminating artificial trans fat by 2015. And that’s terrific. But others are continuing with trans fat in the food supply. The results of that are heart attacks and death from heart disease that don’t have to happen. We estimate that as many as 7,000 deaths per year or more, and 20,000 heart attacks per year will be prevented by this action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — and, again, we’re talking about these partially hydrogenated fats, oils. We mentioned frozen pizzas.

I was just looking it up. You mentioned frosting, microwave popcorn. What else would people be on the lookout for?

THOMAS FRIEDEN: Well, it’s interesting.

If you want to know, you can look at the label in that tiny print and if it says hydrogenated vegetable oil, that’s artificial trans fat. But the bottom line is, this is not necessary. And if you look at any product category like frozen pizzas or microwave popcorn, there are products out there that don’t have it.

And what that suggests is that it’s possible for them to be eliminated, as Wal-Mart and other companies are doing. In fact, what the FDA is doing is not banning it. What it’s doing is making a statement of scientific fact, that this product is not generally recognized as safe, and it’s inviting comment from industry and others and saying, how long will it take to get it out of the food supply?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, there will still be some food that contains trans fats naturally? Is that right?

THOMAS FRIEDEN: Well, there are also naturally-occurring trans fats, but they appear to behave quite differently in the body and they may not be nearly as toxic and harmful as the artificial trans fats are.

You know, most of us don’t know that we’re getting these kind of chemicals that are artificially created in our foods, but they are increasing the risk of heart attack.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Frieden, is it — does this mean that some of these foods are just going to go away? I mean, for example, I mentioned microwave popcorn. Some people, like I do, like it a lot. Does it mean it’s gone?

THOMAS FRIEDEN: No.

We think there will — when New York City took this action, people said the sky would fall, they would be more expensive, we wouldn’t be able to make it, it would taste different. The bottom line is, you can make the same-tasting food for no more money. But it may take some reformulation.

So it may take some time for the industry to adapt. In fact, you won’t know the difference when the trans fat is gone. Only your heart will know the difference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s a new Pew Research poll that we just saw this afternoon. It’s a related question. It’s not exactly what the government is proposing, but it asks people what do they think about prohibiting restaurants from using trans fats in foods.

A majority of Americans, 52 percent, said they don’t like the idea. They oppose it. How do you answer critics who say the government really doesn’t need to be meddling in what people eat?

THOMAS FRIEDEN: You know, I think it has to do really with often how you ask questions.

If you ask people, do you want to have a substance in your food that may kill you that’s artificial and you didn’t know was there, I think you would get a very different response. The bottom line is, we want people to go about their lives and not have to worry about being harmed by something that they didn’t ask for, they didn’t order at the counter, and could kill them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, finally, Dr. Frieden, you’re — you’re — the — it’s now been put out to the public and to manufacturers for comment. What happens next in this process?

THOMAS FRIEDEN: The — the FDA has given 60 days for comments. Once they receive those comments, they will look at them and then they will issue a final determination. And that will include a time frame.

What the group in New York City found was that it was necessary to give industry time. Some products could be very rapidly reformulated. Others took a year or two. So the FDA will be looking for what industry says about, what are the challenges? There are new products coming on the market that give the same kind of taste, the same kind of nutritional approach without the harm and toxicity of artificial trans fat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, thank you.

THOMAS FRIEDEN: Thank you.