Citing health concerns, the Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday a proposal to eliminate trans fats from food products, including certain types of frozen burgers, microwave popcorn, frostings and more. (Thomas LeGro/The Washington Post)

Artificial trans fats, a key ingredient in everything from pastries to pizzas to microwave popcorn for generations, will be banished from America’s food supply under a new federal proposal because of their risk to public health.

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday took the first steps toward eliminating the
artery-clogging substance, saying the change could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths caused by heart disease each year.

Products containing trans fats have increasingly disappeared from grocery stores and restaurant menus in recent years amid widespread agreement about the risks they pose to public health. But trans fats still linger in an array of processed foods, including pancake mix, packaged cookies and ready-made frosting.

Thursday’s action, one of the FDA’s most aggressive efforts to limit Americans’ consumption of a specific food ingredient, was aimed at ending the era of trans fats altogether.

“While consumption of potentially harmful trans fat has declined over the last two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg.

Cities such as New York and Philadelphia have previously imposed bans on artificial trans fats in restaurants, and in May 2007 Montgomery County became the first county in the nation to approve a ban on partially hydrogenated oils in restaurants, supermarket bakeries and delis. Since 2006, the FDA has required food manufacturers to print details about them on nutrition labels. As a result, intake among Americans declined from 4.6 grams of trans fat per day in 2003 to about one gram per day last year, according to the agency.

The FDA said Thursday it will accept public comments for 60 days on its proposal. Although government officials acknowledged that entirely phasing out trans fats is likely to take years, they said they were confident that it will happen.

Under the FDA proposal, trans fats would no longer be among ingredients in the largely unregulated category known as “generally recognized as safe.” Companies wanting to use trans fats in foods would have to petition the agency and meet “rigorous safety standards” showing that they would cause no harm to public health, said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s top food-safety official. Given the growing body of scientific evidence about the dangers of trans fats, that could be a tough sell, Taylor said.

Not that manufacturers or restaurants are likely to go that route.

In recent years, responding to consumer demand and pressure from regulators, food companies have been removing trans fats from an array of products. Many of the country’s best-known food chains, from Dunkin Donuts to Taco Bell to McDonald’s, have been eliminating trans fats in their pastries and fried foods. Retail giant Wal-Mart has given its food suppliers until 2015 to phase out artificial trans fats. Even Crisco, the iconic shortening that has been a staple of American pantries for a century, altered its formula to remove trans fats years ago.

Still, the trans-fat purge was a long time coming.

Trans fats became widely popular during the 1940s, in part because they were cheaper than products made from animal fat and because they proved effective in extending the shelf life of baked and fried foods while also creating the desired taste and texture.

The demise of trans fats

“They were an innovation at the time,” said Robert Collette, president of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils. “They were cost-effective, and they had all these useful characteristics.”

Trans fats come from partially hydrogenated oils, which occur when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil to make a more solid substance. The result is a versatile product that is typically longer-lasting, cheaper and just as functional as animal-based fats such as butter or lard.

As recently as the 1980s, many scientists and public-health advocates believed that partially hydrogenated oils not only were safe but also were healthier than the more natural saturated fats they had replaced. The tide had changed by the mid-1990s as more and more scientific studies made it clear that trans fats increase the level of LDL — bad cholesterol — and put people at higher risk for heart disease.

In 1994, as evidence of the heart-clogging attributes of trans fats mounted, the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to require that trans fats be listed on nutrition labels. In 2002, the Institute of Medicine found that there was “no safe level of trans fatty acids and people should eat as little of them as possible.”

The FDA’s Taylor said manufacturers and restaurants for years have been demonstrating that they can remove trans fats from their foods without significantly disrupting their bottom lines.

“There’s been a lot of demonstration that it’s technologically feasible to do this,” he said. “Given the public health dimension of this, we want to move as rapidly as we reasonably can.”

Food industry representatives said Thursday that companies have made significant strides in recent years to reduce the amount of trans fats on the market.

“Through our efforts at product reformulation and the development of suitable alternatives, trans fats that are not naturally occurring have been drastically reduced in the food supply,” Leon Bruner, chief science officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said in a statement Thursday. “Since 2005, food manufacturers have voluntarily lowered the amounts of trans fats in their products by over 73 percent.”

Even so, manufacturers will face trade-offs and potentially higher costs in trying to totally do away with trans fats. They could return to old formulas using ingredients such as coconut oil or palm oil, but those products are heavy in unhealthy saturated fats, which hold little appeal for many consumers. They could turn to unsaturated vegetable oils such as olive or corn oils, but that could risk altering tastes and shortening shelf life.

Collette, of the oil and shortening industry, said the main challenge lies in creating substitutes that aren’t cost-prohibitive and don’t fundamentally alter a food that people love. “What you’re seeing now, in many cases, are the most technologically difficult reformulations,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’d like the product to be what people recognize in the marketplace.”

The sooner the marketplace is free of trans fats, the better, said Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There are still trans fats in our food, and it’s still killing people,” Frieden said. “The next question is, how quickly can we get it out of the food supply?”

Frieden noted that artificial trans fats don’t have to be labeled if they constitute less than half a gram per serving, but even small amounts added up can increase health risks over time. He said eliminating the ingredient will save billions in health-care costs and thousands of lives and do away with a product that Americans long ate without understanding its dangers.

“We’re talking about thousands of people who are dying because of an artificially produced chemical that they didn’t know they were eating,” Frieden said. “No one did anything evil or wrong to get trans fat in our food supply. People thought it was safe and healthy, and it’s not.”