Elaine Turner email@example.com, (352) 392-1991 x224
GAINESVILLE, Fla.— During the past decade, American consumers have become avid readers of nutrition labels. Today’s health-conscious shoppers closely examine food packages for tip-off words such as fat, salt and sugar.
But phantom health obstacles still lurk in supermarket aisles.
One example is trans fatty acids – or trans fat — which is not listed on food labels, but according to health professionals, should be.
Elaine Turner, assistant professor of human nutrition with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said people should have access to such important health information because trans fat raises LDL or “bad” cholesterol much like saturated fat does.
“Currently, consumers cannot read a food label and find out how much trans fat is in their food, but hopefully they will in the future,” Turner said, noting that the government may soon require that information to be included on labels. “People could greatly benefit from that knowledge, particularly those who are trying to reduce their risk of heart disease.”
Turner’s point of view is backed up by hard science.
In May 2001, the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) tightened its health guidelines, stating that, “Trans fatty acids are another LDL-raising fat that should be kept to a low intake.”
Turner said consumers who track their daily intake of saturated fat should be including trans fat in that total.
But that’s a tough task, considering that trans fat is not separately listed on labels.
Turner said that although the amount of “total fat” on a food label includes trans fat, it is nearly impossible to decipher from most foods how much of that total fat comes from each of four major fat categories: saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fat.
Turner said having information about trans fat is more important than ever because the new NCEP guidelines for saturated fat intake have been lowered from 20 grams per day to 15.5 grams. Those numbers are based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories.
Turner said statistics show the average person eats about five grams of trans fat a day, but it is likely that many Americans consume closer to 10 grams daily.
Trans fat is made when hydrogen atoms are added to liquid oils, such as corn oil. The hydrogenation process changes the chemical structure of unsaturated fats and causes them to be treated by the body as saturated fats. Food manufacturers use the hydrogenation process to increase the shelf life and flavor stability of foods that contain oils, including cooking oil for restaurants. Trans fat is found in vegetable shortening, margarines, baked goods, salad dressings, processed cheeses and other foods.
When food manufacturers make content claims such as “low fat” or “low cholesterol,” they are required to limit the amount of saturated fat per serving, but not the amount of trans fat. For example, a food “low in saturated fat” must have one gram or less of saturated fat per serving, with a serving consisting of two tablespoons or 30 grams. However, manufacturers can include as much trans fat as they want in a food bearing such a claim.
Turner said if trans fat was included, food manufacturers would have to change many content claims that address the health aspects foods.
“Because food manufacturers do not include trans fat in saturated fat calculations, a large number of content claims are misleading,” Turner said. “For example, many foods advertised as ‘low in cholesterol’ have enough trans fat to disqualify that claim.”
Consumers may soon know the amount of trans fat in foods if a rule under consideration by the federal Food and Drug Administration is issued by the agency.
FDA spokesperson Ruth Welch said the rule would require food manufacturers to include trans fat on food labels and in advertised content claims, with the amount of trans fat added into the sum total of "saturated fat per serving.”
Some food manufacturers have opposed the rule, citing that the FDA does not have sufficient data supporting the assertion that trans fat has an effect on cholesterol equivalent to that of saturated fat. Manufacturers also stated the proposed labeling changes may confuse consumers and ” … not be in their best interest.”
But Turner said that trans fat does affect serum cholesterol levels in a similar manner to saturated fat, and consumers who regularly read labels should have no problem utilizing the additional information.
Regarding the FDA’s final ruling, Welch said trans fatty acids are a “priority for this calendar year.”
Turner said that until the rule is finalized and in effect, consumers who want to find out how much trans fat is their food can sometimes get that information by calling the manufacturer’s toll-free number.