The Nutrition Facts Label to List Trans Fat: From Bad to Worse

Written by Dr. Fuhrman's colleague Dr. Steven Acocella, MS, D.C., DACBN, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist, American College of Lifestyle Physicians, and a Diplomat of the American Clinical Board of Nutrition.

As of January 1, 2006 a new law requires food manufacturers to list the amount of trans fat contained in their products. This is the first major addendum to the Nutrition Facts packaging label since its inception in 1993. Although the manufacturing process of trans fat was originally discovered over a hundred years ago its large-scale use by the food industry began in the late 1970's and early 1980's. During that time an alarming body of scientific evidence emerged directly linking saturated fats, like lard, tropical oils and butter to vascular disease, heart attack and stroke. The food industry scrambled to offer a healthier alternative to the vilified saturated fats and embraced trans fats as the answer. Many of us remember the 'I Can't Believe It's Not Butter' ad-campaign. In addition to the marketing boom touting the healthier trans fat containing products the food industry enjoyed further economic benefits from the greatly enhanced shelf life of foods made with solid trans fats (just look at the expiration date on a Twinkie); this fostered even more extensive use of hydrogenated oils. But the benefits of this bit of food magic would be short lived.

Although very small amounts exist in nature, trans fat is almost exclusively a product of the laboratory. Through a process called hydrogenation, less health-offensive fats like those in vegetable oils are exposed to high pressure and temperature and bombarded with hydrogen gas. This processing changes the chemical structure transforming the oil into a waxy, gooey solid. But science leaped too quickly from the laboratory to our kitchen when it starting serving up this gunk. Research in the early 1990's uncovered that trans fat not only raises LDL (bad) cholesterol in the same way as saturated fat, it also lowers HDL (good) cholesterol. Furthermore, emerging science has shown that the altered chemical structure allows our bodies to more easily oxidize trans fat, an important step in the formation of artery clogging plaques. One example of the serious negative health effects of trans fats in our diets comes from the Walter Willett Nurses Study (Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School). The study of 80,000 women concluded that a mere 2% increase in dietary trans fat consumption increases a woman's risk of heart disease by 93%. Recently the FDA Food Advisory Committee voted in favor of recommending that trans fat intake be reduced to less than 1% of total caloric energy. This amounts to less than 1.5 g per day for a standard 1500 calorie diet.

Trans fat is lurking everywhere. It is extensively used in baked goods like crackers, cookies, pastries and cakes and in fried foods like French-fries, breaded fish, chicken and shrimp. Snack foods such as popcorn, chips and chocolate are loaded with trans fat as are sauces and condiments. Trans fat turns even some brands of healthy foods like tomato sauce and vegetable soup into artery clogging goop. And the next time you proudly go for that healthy salad take a closer look at that white sludge you're about to smother it in. Most salad dressings are loaded with trans fat. And don't forget that trans fat is commonly used in the food service industry and restaurants don't list the nutritional facts for the foods they serve.

It's very important to note that the new Nutritional Facts label law has a major loophole in it. Food manufacturers were able to preserve language in the rules that allows them to advertise and label their products as "trans fat free" if there is "an amount less than or equal to .5 grams of trans fat per serving". This is called the non-reportable amount. The key here is 'per serving'. Very often a serving size (an amount which is subjectively determined by the manufacture) is a much smaller portion then we realistically consume. For example, a popular 'trans fat free' golden cracker snack lists the per serving size of their product at "about 5 crackers". After the new law went into effect this particular manufacturer simply reduced their serving size to stay within the trans fat reporting threshold. There is actually .5 grams of trans fat in one serving. They just worked backwards and based their serving size on .5 grams of trans fat. The problem is that if you're like most of us, when you open that box and kick back with Jay Leno for some late night TV you're going for at least 3 to 5 servings. You'll be consuming an average of 2 grams (in excess of the FDA recommendation) of trans fat from a single snack that has a legal Nutrition Facts Label that clearly states - '0 Trans Fat'. What planet is this?

The new label law is confusing and misleading. Many American's will consume what they believe are healthier products because they are advertised as 'trans fat free'. But many of these products are loaded with equally unhealthy saturated fat or may have less than the reportable amount of trans fat per serving. The disease producing and aging effect of both trans fat and saturated fat is as clear as the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Why try to calculate which one is the lesser of two dietary evils?

While the white coat geniuses at Kraft are back at the drawing board working hard on their next big chemical break though (like their last great invention, Olestra with its 'anal leakage' warning) I leave you with this simple solution to this dietary dilemma. The more calories you consume from natural foods the less you'll need to be concerned about processed food additives. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans do not contain a list of unhealthy ingredients. And the last time I checked nature didn't need a nutrition label loophole.

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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Elijah Lynn - January 26, 2006 8:03 PM

Trans fat is "Partially Hydrogenated oil", right? The article is great and I forwarded it to a bunch of friends but it fails to mention what people should look for on the label, specifically.

Very good article it just needs to say something specifically like, "do not buy foods with partially hydrogenated oil."


Casinera - January 27, 2006 2:51 AM

Thanks for informing us that "zero trans fat" does not mean zero trans fat. That is very useful information. These people are so sneaky.

Kirsten - January 27, 2006 10:50 AM

I guess this will be something to look for in the few packaged foods we buy and to harass the "health food" companies if they are playing that game ... I'll have to go check a couple boxes right now!

Jonathan - May 9, 2006 6:36 PM

From what I've been seeing, an item with hydrogenated oils in the ingrediants can be an indicator of a high level of trans fats, but that's not always the case. Since the amount of hydrogenization can vary, so can the amount of trans fats per serving. Of course, any item that's loaded in oils is bound to have a higher fat content regardless.

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