Elaine Turner firstname.lastname@example.org, 352-392-1991 ext. 224
GAINESVILLE, Fla.—Food labels will get a much-needed makeover when new federal rules require information on trans fats by January 2006.
Prompted by growing concerns about heart disease, it’s the first major change to food labeling since it was required by the federal Food and Drug Administration in 1993.
“Research shows that trans fats raise the level of LDL, or bad cholesterol, in the blood, which increases the risk for heart disease,” said Elaine Turner, an associate professor of human nutrition at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“This is similar to the effect of saturated fat on blood cholesterol,” she said. “The saturated fat content of foods has been on the label, and now information on trans fat will be available to consumers as well.”
Coronary heart disease affects almost 13 million people each year, resulting in more than 500,000 related deaths. Estimates show that trans-fat information on the food label could prevent between 600 and 1,200 heart attacks a year, while saving 250 to 500 lives a year. In addition, between $900 million to $1.8 billion per year could be saved in related medical costs, lost productivity, and pain and suffering.
Trans fats are found in foods such as chips, cookies, crackers, pastries, doughnuts, candy bars, fried foods, shortening, and margarine. The average American adult consumes 5.8 grams of trans fat daily, or 2.6 percent of their calorie intake.
Although trans fats occur naturally in foods such as animal fats, milk, and butter, they are introduced into processed foods through hydrogenation. The process makes a liquid vegetable oil into a solid fat by adding hydrogen, which increases the shelf life, stability and functionality of foods.
“Now that the trans fat information is becoming available on the food label, consumers will be able to compare products and choose those that are most appropriate for their diet and lifestyle,” Turner said.
The new trans fat information will be located on the Nutrition Facts panel of the food label directly below current saturated fat information. The number of trans fat grams in the product will be listed, but the new listing will not include the Percent Daily Value (%DV) that appears on other lines of the label. According to FDA, while trans fats have been linked to increased heart disease, a reference daily value has not been determined.
Some companies have already begun to change their labels and products. Campbell Soup Co., owner of the Pepperidge Farm brand, announced they would remove trans fat from 165 products by September 2004. Frito-Lay has stated they will remove trans fat from chips such as Doritos, Cheetos and Tostitos, while McDonald’s has announced a reduction in the percent of trans fat in their French fries.
These changes, though heart healthy, will cost the industry. The FDA estimates it will cost $140 million to $250 million to determine trans-fat amounts in food, change labels and alter foods.
“Removing trans fat is a good goal for improving the nutritional quality of food products, but it is important for consumers to look at all aspects of a food when making decisions about diet or nutrition,” Turner said.
There are currently few alternatives to the hydrogenation process that could reduce the amount of trans fats in foods. While other processing techniques have been used less widely, they may become important in the future, she said.
For some types of foods, such as fried foods, an alternative is to use another oil. The National Sunflower Association reports that its NuSun product is trans fat free, has less than 10 percent saturated fat and does not require hydrogenation for use in commercial cooking. Cargill Inc., a major food processor, has developed canola oils that are very low in trans fat but function much like hydrogenated oils.
Other new techniques involve modifying the hydrogenation process itself, which is what companies such as Bunge Foods Corp. in St. Louis have done. Their new, low trans-fat shortening contains five percent trans fat, a 75 percent reduction.