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Trans fat to appear on food labels

New FDA rule could change some popular snacks

Kim Severson, kseverson@sfchronicle.com, Staff
Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Consumers finally will have a simple way to find out how much artery-clogging trans fat is hidden in their food after a near-epic, decadelong battle between food processors and health advocates.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to unveil a new rule today that requires the makers of cookies, crackers and other popular snack foods to list trans fat amounts on nutrition panels.

Although the rule falls short of what some nutritionists and health advocates wanted, it is expected to jump-start a major reworking of the formulas used to make such products as Oreos and Triscuits and such frozen foods as pot pies and french fries, said representatives of both the food manufacturing industry and the public interest group that first petitioned the FDA for the trans fat label in 1994.

Most of the trans fat in America's diet comes from vegetable oil that has been partially hydrogenated to make it stay solid at room temperature. Think Crisco, and you've got trans fat.

Researchers agree that it is more dangerous than saturated fat because it raises the levels of unhealthy blood cholesterol and lowers the levels of beneficial blood cholesterol. Trans fat also is suspected of contributing to the nation's obesity epidemic and the rise in diabetes rates by altering the ways cells work.

According to the FDA's own research, listing information about trans fat on food labels could prevent 7,600 to 17,100 cases of coronary heart disease and 2,500 to 5,600 deaths every year. Not only will people be able to choose more healthful foods, but manufacturers could choose to reduce trans fat amounts rather than list high levels on nutrition panels, the FDA says.

Depending on the final wording of the FDA's ruling, consumers will start seeing the new nutrition labels anywhere from six months to three years from now, said Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry group that lobbies for the nation's biggest food companies.

Exactly how long companies will have to change their labels will become clear when the FDA announces the rule. Childs had no estimate of the cost of reanalyzing the food products and designing new labels.

Consumers should keep trans fat issue in perspective, Childs urged. Trans fat makes up about 2 1/2 percent of the average daily caloric intake but can be a larger part of the diet for those Americans -- and there are many -- who get more than 30 percent of their total daily calories from fat.


"We want to make sure consumers aren't overemphasizing any one nutrient. They need to look at the entire label and see how each nutrient fits into their overall diet," she said.

But health experts say even small amounts of trans fat -- even as little as two or three grams a day -- can be unhealthy. And it's easy to eat that much without knowing it. A Consumer Reports analysis in March showed that a glazed doughnut has four grams of trans fat. A serving of Wheat Thins -- that's 16 crackers -- has two grams.

In Harvard University's Nurses' Health Study of 85,000 women, the nation's longest-running health study, those who ate the most trans fatty acids had a 53 percent increased risk of coronary heart disease compared to those who ate the least.

Researchers say the health risk is big even when the increase of trans fats is as small as four to six grams a day.

A year ago, the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, declared there is no safe amount of trans fat in the diet and recommended that people eat as little of it as possible. But the study also conceded that it is virtually impossible to avoid trans fat altogether.

That study was one of the engines driving the FDA rule.

Margo Wottan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which petitioned the FDA for the label law change nearly 10 years ago, said the rule doesn't go far enough. It won't require any sort of message to consumers about how much trans fat is recommended as part of a daily diet or that consumption should be as low as possible -- something the food industry fought against.


"The opposition in the food industry made this initial rule take a long time and made the FDA act conservatively," she said. "And while this is a good step, trans fat labeling is not going to take care of restaurant food."

Fast-food and family-style restaurants use trans fat liberally in deep-fat fryers and on grills.

Food processors are already working on trans fat alternatives, and several smaller, health-focused food companies like Barbara's Bakery in Petaluma and Newman's Own Organics, based in Aptos, make cookies and snacks with canola oil and palm oil instead of partially hydrogenated oils. Even Frito-Lay has started making some snacks like Cheetos and Doritos without trans fat.

But it isn't as easy as just changing the oil. There's a little matter of what most of us like about snack food.

"You have to have the right texture, the right taste," Childs said. "To simply change the ingredients without considering that consumers like all the things that make cookies great wouldn't make sense."


Partially hydrogenated oil is in about 40 percent of the food on grocery store shelves, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It also occurs naturally in some meat and dairy products. Here are some common processed foods that have high amounts of trans fat:

E-mail Kim Severson at kseverson@sfchronicle.com

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