CHICAGO — The U.S. government’s decision to try calling artificial trans fats unsafe for human consumption may have little impact on foodmakers and restaurant chains because they’ve been phasing them out for years.
Under pressure from the American Heart Association and city and state governments, companies from General Mills to McDonald’s have been ridding their products of partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fats linked to a type of artery-clogging cholesterol.
Foodmakers have lowered trans fats in their products by 73 percent since 2005, according to Washington-based Grocery Manufacturers Association. More than 90 percent of General Mills’ U.S. retail products are labeled as having zero grams of trans fat, Kirstie Foster, a spokeswoman, said in an email.
“I can’t tell you the last time I bought crackers or cookies, you name it, that I even saw any trans fat,” Brian Yarbrough, an analyst for Edward Jones in St. Louis, said Thursday. “It’s a positive from the standpoint of consumers, as trans fats are obviously bad for your health, but for investors and the companies I don’t know it changes much.”
Trans fats are no longer “generally recognized as safe,” according to a tentative determination published Thursday by the Food and Drug Administration. The decision, while not yet final, would lead to regulations that prevent food companies from using the ingredient.
But that may not change that many products.
ConAgra Foods has removed trans fat from products such as Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, Teresa Paulsen, a spokeswoman, said in an email.
“We took steps to remove partially hydrogenated oils from many foods in our portfolio years ago,” she said.
It won’t have much impact “on quick-service restaurants, most of which use limited amounts of trans fats and hydrogenated oils,” Bob Goldin, executive vice president at Chicago-based restaurant researcher Technomic Inc., said. “I don’t think it’s a big issue.”
The FDA’s ruling may force companies to clean up the rest of their portfolios faster than they may have planned. Burger King’s breaded chicken patties and molten fudge bites have partially hydrogenated oils, according to the company’s website.
Yum Brands’ KFC sells BBQ baked beans, mashed potatoes, gravy and some dipping sauces, such as fiery buffalo wings, with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils also can be found in caramel apple empanadas, Cinnabon delights and green tomatillo sauce at Yum’s Taco Bell.
The FDA began requiring food companies to include trans fats on their labels in 2006. Consumers began turning away from foods with the fats soon after, the agency said. New York City in 2006 began a ban on trans fats in restaurants, and California followed suit in 2008.