The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ruling on Thursday that takes the first step in banning artificial trans fats.
The man-made substances are a major component in processed foods and research has shown they can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease.
The agency announced on Thursday that it had determined the main source of artificial trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils, are not “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. If the determination is finalized, it would effectively ban the additive from most food products.
The food industry has taken action in recent years to reduce the levels of trans fats in most foods, but Hamburg said that current consumption “remains a public health concern.”
Though some trans fats are natural, most come from artificial oils that can raise “bad” cholesterol, which increases the risks of coronary heart disease.
The Institute of Medicine has determined that there are no health benefits from artificial trans fats and that there are no safe levels for its consumption.
Food producers and the general public will have 60 days to comment on the preliminary determination. After that, the agency will review comments from the public and decide whether and how to move forward.
The FDA said it is especially anxious to hear from manufacturers about how long it would take to remove the fats from their foods.
Companies will still be able to use trans fats in their foods even if the determination is finalized, but they would need specific regulatory clearance and meet a “rigorous safety standard,” according to Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food and veterinary medicine.
Public health advocates cheered Thursday’s announcement.
“Getting rid of artificial trans fat is one of the most important life-saving measures the FDA could take,” Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement.
Use of trans fats in food has declined in recent years, since the FDA’s 2006 requirement that they be included on products’ nutrition facts labels.
“Industry, I think, has already recognized both the public health concern and the public health interests in reducing trans fat levels,” Hamburg said.
According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group, food manufacturers have voluntarily lowered the amount of trans fats in their products by 73 percent since 2005.
“Consumers can be confident that their food is safe and we look forward to working with the FDA to better understand their concerns and how our industry can better serve consumers," the group said in a statement on Thursday.
The fats can still be found in some microwaveable foods, frozen snacks and frosting, among other products.
In late 2006, New York City announced that it would ban most trans fats in restaurants in the city.
Hamburg said that experience “has informed our thinking," but that it could not account for the recent nationwide decline in trans fat consumption.