July 9, 2003 -- Finding out how much of a little-known but artery-clogging fat your favorite snack and processed foods contain is about to get a lot easier. The FDA today announced that manufacturers will soon be required to list on the Nutrition Facts label the amount of trans fatty acids, or trans fat, in foods.
The new rule will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2006, but manufacturers will start phasing in the new labels well before that deadline. It's the first major change in the Nutrition Facts label since it was established in 1993.
"We are empowering Americans to make healthier choices about the foods they eat," says U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, in a news release. "By putting trans fat information on food labels, we are making it possible for consumers to make better educated choices to lower their intake of these unhealthy fats and cholesterol."
Trans fats are frequently found in the same foods that contain other types of fat, such as cookies, crackers, fried foods such as french fries and chicken fried in shortening, donuts, and margarine sticks.
When a Good Fat Goes Bad
Trans fatty acids are the result of a process called hydrogenation that converts a relatively healthy, unsaturated liquid fat, such as vegetable oil, into a solid one, to make the product shelf stable and stay fresh longer. When the fat becomes solid, the body treats it more like a saturated fat, like butter or animal fat. But it is not classified as saturated fat on food labels
"Trans fat, like saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, raises LDL 'bad' cholesterol levels in the blood, which increases the risk for heart disease," says Claude Lenfant, MD, director of National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), in the release. "It is therefore desirable to have food labels display all the information that can help consumers choose foods low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol as part of a healthy diet."
The new regulations will require food makers to list the number of trans fat grams a food contains in addition to the saturated and unsaturated fat content and cholesterol level.
How Much Trans Fat Is Too Much?
But some say the labels don't go far enough in putting trans fat into the context of a day's diet and should treat it more like saturated fat.
The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) had requested the FDA include trans fats in the existing 20-gram daily value for saturated fat as part of a new combined daily value for both heart-disease promoting fats.
"The new labels will let consumers compare trans fat content from product to product, and that will be a great step forward," says Margo Wootan, CSPI nutrition policy director, in a news release. "It will be hard, though, for people to tell if a given number of grams of trans fat is a lot or a little. Five grams may not seem like a lot, but it is."
A report issued last year by the Institute of Medicine said that because trans fatty acids closely resemble saturated fats and provide no known health benefit, there is no "safe" level of trans fatty acids, and people should eat as little of them as possible in maintaining a healthy diet.
The American Heart Association also recommends that people limit the combined amount of trans fat and saturated fat to less than 10% of their total calories consumed daily. Consuming high levels of these fats has been strongly linked to the development of atherosclerosis, the disease process that underlies heart attack and stroke.
Nutritionist Kathleen Zelman, RD, adds that calorie for calorie, all fats are the same, and the most important thing to understand is that people should try to reduce the total amount of fat in their diet.
"We can safely lump saturated and trans fats into one category," says Zelman, who is a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and a nutrition consultant for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic.
"But don't lose sight of the fact that you still need to monitor portion sizes and look for low-fat foods, and when choosing between a product high in saturated fat or trans fats versus one that's not, it's always best to chose the one that's not."