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Shedding Light on Trans Fats in Foods

New FDA labeling requirement helps consumers spot these threats to heart health

FRIDAY, June 30 HealthDay News) -- Donuts, muffins and frozen pizzas all had their cover blown on Jan. 1, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated labeling of so-called "trans fats" in foods.

These treats, and many other commercially prepared foods, include the dangerous fats, which extend a product's shelf life. But, like saturated fats, trans fats are known to be risk factors for cardiovascular disease, raising LDL, or "bad" cholesterol levels.

Until this year, food labels listed the amount of saturated fat in products, but companies weren't required to detail the amount of trans fats, leaving diet-conscious consumers in the dark about the overall fat content of the foods they ate.

Now, however, any food with more than 0.5 grams of trans fats must reflect the amount of that fat in the labeling.

So, are consumers paying attention?

"It's a little early to tell -- right now it seems like I'm still hearing more about New Year's resolutions and weight control," said Karen Collins, a dietician and nutrition advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research. "But as people settle down and focus on healthy eating they can live with, they will be able to focus on the big picture."

The big picture, Collins explained, is that by checking food labels for trans fats, consumers will be able to make healthier food choices.

"Trans fats were the missing part," she said. "Consumers could see the amount of calories, sodium or saturated fat in a food, but were left guessing on the trans fats."

The new mandate, she noted, will ensure that consumers have better information about the foods they want to eat, and can pick and choose depending on how much they like a particular food.

Tara Gidus, a dietician in Orlando, Fla., and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, said there's a balance between too little information and too much information.

"For a lot of people, labels provide too much information and they can't handle the numbers," she said. "But the new labeling is definitely good for people who do want to take the time and want as much information as possible."

As important as it is to provide complete information to the consumer, Gidus added, another benefit of the new labeling requirement is that it has persuaded many food manufacturers to reduce the amount of trans fats in their foods -- to make them more palatable to buyers and to increase their marketability in a competitive food business.

"Food supplement amounts just got better because of the FDA mandates," she said.

When looking at the new labeling, it's important to pay attention to recommended food portion sizes and only eat the amount suggested, Collins pointed out.

"There are two pieces to the new food labeling," she said. "One is to make good food choices, and the other is the amount of food you eat."

If food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fats, food companies don't need to list it as an ingredient, Collins said. In that case, you can look for the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated," which indicate the presence of trans fats, she noted.

But even tiny amounts of trans fats can add up, she added.

If there's a negligible amount of trans fats in, say, six crackers, that's OK, she said, "but if you eat half a box, it could be two and a half grams of trans fats."

Collins said the best way to use the new labeling is to add the saturated fats and trans fats together for the total "bad" fat content. The general recommendation for daily saturated and trans-fat consumption is no more than 20 grams, she said.

More information

To learn more about trans fat labeling, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

SOURCES: Karen Collins, R.D., American Institute for Cancer Research, Washington, D.C.; Tara Gidus, R.D., Orlando, Fla., national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association
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