Trans fat labels: Will they work?

Health experts hope the information will curb the public’s appetite for fat.
Thursday, March 4, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:48 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Soon, Americans will have another opportunity to make informed, intelligent choices about what they eat and the effect that food has on their bodies.

And they still may not care.

On July 9, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a regulation that requires all food and supplement manufacturers to list trans fat content on their Nutrition Facts labels. Manufacturers have until Jan. 1, 2006, to comply.

If past behavior is any indicator, however, many Americans will take notice of the marketing hype, snack healthier for a while and ultimately grab themselves another Oreo. Or two.

When the FDA mandated changes to the Nutrition Facts label in 1993, two pieces of information that were thought to be particularly valuable to consumers looking to slim down were the breakdown of fat content and the percentage of saturated fat. Americans would know exactly how much fat was in their favorite snacks and make changes.

And America certainly has changed. The number of obese Americans has risen almost 8 percent in the past 10 years.

Knowledge will help health

Fred Pescatore, medical doctor, has another theory.

“Food is comfort, and it is probably as simple as that,” he said. “There are so few vices left, and food is still one of the acceptable ones.”

Pescatore, who co-hosts the radio show “Healthy by Nature” in Dallas, said some things have improved. Even though Americans are eating just as many fatty foods, at least now they know they’re doing it.

Pescatore, who also holds a master’s degree in public health, hopes that will be the case with the new trans fat labeling, as well. But more than that, Pescatore is hoping that knowledge will become part of the national dieting lexicon, much like the low-carbohydrate Atkins diet.

Although some think the Atkins diet might be another passing fad as oat bran was in the early 1990s, Subway, Hardee’s, Anheuser-Busch and other food and beverage companies have jumped on the low-carb bandwagon. Pescatore similarly hopes consumers and companies will start to take trans fat numbers to heart.

And there are signs food producers may already be doing so.

A Jan. 30 Frito Lay advertisement in the Wall Street Journal illustrated in scoreboard-like fashion the lack of trans fat in its snack chips. Perhaps even more important, Frito Lay used the background of America’s national snack food pig-out holiday — the Super Bowl — to make its pitch.

“What better time to talk about Lay’s than during the Super Bowl — one of the largest snacking events of the year,” said Lora DeVuono, vice president of advertising for Frito-Lay North America.

Some food manufacturers, including makers of margarine, butter, popcorn and crackers, have taken a more pervasive approach to marketing by adding a “No Trans Fat” label to the front of their packages. This will be the next big marketing trend, following closely on the heels of the low-carb craze, said Terra Wellington, media personality, columnist and author, and consumer wellness expert.

“This is why the trans fat labeling issue is different than nutritional facts, because the trans fat issue will be a marked change by itself, and food marketing for the wellness conscious has become so much bigger,” Wellington says.

Keep intake low

While some trans fat occurs naturally, typically in animal-based products, the majority of trans fat comes from food manufacturers’ desire to provide consumers with fluffier fries, creamier cookies and tastier treats. The answer to these textural delights was hydrogenation — a process used for about the past 20 years that adds hydrogen to vegetable oils and increases both the shelf life and flavor stability of foods that contain this type of oil.

Although it is unknown exactly how much trans fat it takes to become really unhealthy, the FDA is considering adding a footnote to the bottom of the label that reads, “Intake of trans fat should be as low as possible.”

This has some food producers nervous. The International Food Information Council Foundation, an “educational arm” of the food and beverage industry, thinks the warning could cause consumers to place “disproportionate weight” on trans fat content.

It might match the disproportionate weight on some food consumers. The FDA states on its Web site the reason for this new regulation is its assertion that “by three years after that date (Jan. 1, 2006), trans fat labeling will have prevented from 600 to 1,200 cases of coronary heart disease and 250 to 500 deaths each year.”

The FDA isn’t the only one with trans fat on its hit list. According to the University of Maryland Medicine Web site, trans fat is now considered to be the most dangerous form of fat, surpassing former heavyweight saturated fat, because of trans fat’s effect of lowering levels of HDL, or good cholesterol, while raising levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol.

This double whammy results in an increase in total cholesterol levels, whereas saturated fat only raises LDL levels. This is particularly true of the man-made form of trans fat, though it’s unclear whether the naturally occurring form of trans fat has the same effect, according to the Discovery Health Web site.

Will the labels work?

Even the FDA admits it’s not an exact science. The new Nutrition Facts label will include total trans fat grams but will not include the daily value percentage that is provided for other items, such as saturated fat, because data regarding that element has been inconclusive so far.

Vagaries aside, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services supports the FDA’s new labeling. Mark B. McClellan, commissioner of the FDA, said on the department’s Web site: “Our choices about our diets are choices about our health, and those choices should be based on the best available scientific information. This label change means that trans fat can no longer lurk, hidden, in our food choices.”

Ultimately, it will be up to consumers to decide whether to make dietary changes based on the new labeling. It may prompt genuine changes, such as those the Atkins diet made to the understanding of carbohydrates. Or, like the new labels in 1993, it may just mean more numbers to ignore on the side of the package.

In the end, however, it may not matter. Just because people aren’t ignorant about their Oreos doesn’t mean eating one’s not still bliss.

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