New labeling laws give insight into what types of fat we’re eating and food companies are taking this information to heart. U.S. Government regulations that took effect Jan. 1 require food labels to disclose the amount of trans fat in processed foods.
In an era when food companies are working harder than ever to woo health-conscious consumers, products that contain trans fats now run the risk of being attacked by competitors as unhealthy. Oil from sunflowers has often replaced hydrogenated vegetable oils that contain trans fatty acids. However, sunflower oil is likely more expensive than hydrogenated oil. With many things in life, you get what you pay for and healthful food is no exception.
Hardening vegetable oils with hydrogen helps food manufacturers enhance flavor and extend the shelf life of their products. But medical evidence has been building that trans fats in these hydrogenated oils are particularly pernicious. Unlike saturated fat, not only do they increase the level of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, they also decrease the levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol, in the blood.
Trans fats, when combined with saturated fats and cholesterol, are implicated in the United States’ 12.5 million cases of coronary heart disease. In response, companies have been working feverishly to remove the taint of trans fats from their products.
PepsiCo Inc. in 2002 said its Frito-Lay snack food unit would eliminate trans fats from its Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos lines, converting to corn oil.
Con Agra Foods Inc. has said it will remove trans fat from its Orville Reddenbacher’s and ACT II popcorn.
Kraft Foods Inc. said last month it has spent 100,000 man hours on research to reduce or eliminate trans fats in 650 of its products, including its previously trans fat-laden Oreo cookies. When it’s done, Kraft said, only 2.5 percent of its products will contain trans fats, including those such as cheese, where they occur naturally.
Companies have had since July 2003, when the new regulation was adopted, to prepare for the FDA’s new food labeling.
The main change on food labels is the addition of a new line showing trans fat levels. And under the “percent daily value” column, there is an empty space because trans fats are not recommended. The FDA originally was going to have an asterisk on the line followed by wording indicating that people should eat as little trans fat as possible.
That line was dropped under industry pressure, however.
Further, products labeled as having zero trans fats actually may have a small amount. The FDA allows products with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat to be listed as having none.
Some consumer advocates have complained that people who eat three or four products that have 0.4 grams of trans fat during a day may think they are ingesting no trans fat, while, in truth, they are consuming one or more grams per day.
Minor levels of trans fat may remain in some soups, including those made with beef, in which trans fats are naturally occurring.
While trans fat is not the complete story when it comes to choosing heart-healthy foods, this move by the FDA empowers consumers to make better and more educated choices.