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Labels to List Harmful Trans Fats

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ATLANTA _ The amount of unhealthy trans fats hidden in foods such as chips and margarine won't be a secret much longer.

A new food labeling rule announced Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration requires manufacturers to list trans-fatty acids on the nutrition facts panel, as they already do with saturated fat.

The FDA claims the requirement could prevent as many as 500 deaths a year from heart disease, particularly if food manufacturers are led to remove artery-clogging trans fats from margarine, cookies, chips and a slew of other products.

Consumption of trans fat, as well as saturated fat, increases the risk of heart disease. Trans fat is considered by some doctors to be more dangerous than saturated fat because it also lowers levels of good cholesterol.

The new labeling regulation, under consideration for nearly a decade, was opposed by many in the food industry.

By the time it takes effect in January 2006, many products may have lower levels of the dangerous fat. Frito-Lay introduced trans-fat-free Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos this spring. Kraft, the nation's largest food manufacturer, said last week it planned to trim trans fat in some of its products. Unilever Bestfoods said Wednesday it would strip trans fats from its I Can't Believe It's Not Butter spreads by the middle of next year.

"People who never look at a label will still benefit because some of the food they eat regularly will do less damage to their arteries," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The new rules would list trans fat right under saturated fat on labels. Adding the two figures will show how much artery-clogging fat is in a product.

Trans fats are formed when hydrogen is pumped through liquid vegetable oil to turn it into a solid, as for shortening and hard margarine. Most trans fat in American diets come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, but it's also found in meat and dairy products.

Trans fat and saturated fat raise low-density lipoprotein _ bad cholesterol _ levels and contribute to heart disease. The federal Institute of Medicine last fall recommended Americans eat as little trans fat as possible.

"Our choices about our diets are choices about our health, and those choices should be based on the best available scientific information," FDA commissioner Mark B. McClellan said in a prepared statement. "This label change means that trans fat can no longer lurk, hidden, in our food choices."

Consumers may be surprised at what the new labels show, Wootan said. A doughnut contains 5 grams of saturated fat, and that's listed on the label. But now the label also must disclose that the doughnut contains another 5 grams of trans fat.

"That's half a day's worth of artery-clogging fat in one doughnut," Wootan said. "Nobody can fit that into a healthy diet."

The nutrition label currently gives recommended daily amounts for all listed items, such as cholesterol and saturated fat. It will not list an amount for trans fat because the Institute of Medicine did not set a limit in its most recent recommendations.

Alice Lichtenstein, a Tufts University professor of nutrition who served on the Institute of Medicine panel, said consumers should look at both saturated fat and trans fat. Together, they should provide less than 10 percent of daily calories _ about 20 grams of fat.

The new rule stopped short of an FDA proposal to add a label footnote warning consumers to eat as little trans fat as possible. Food manufacturers opposed the admonition, saying it would confuse consumers and cause them to make a buying decision solely on trans fat content.

The amount of trans fat shouldn't be the only reason to pick one box of crackers over another, Lichtenstein said. Trans fat accounts for 2.5 percent of Americans' daily calories, compared to 11 percent to 12 percent for saturated fat. The cracker with the lowest amount of both is the best choice, she said.

"Trans fats are important," Lichtenstein said. "But we're still consuming too much saturated fat and we're still consuming too many calories. This is one small component."

The label requirement will produce a one-time industry expense of $140 million to $250 million, the FDA estimated. But it could save as much as $1.8 billion a year in medical costs, lost productivity and pain and suffering as people choose healthier foods, and manufacturers make more such products available, the agency said. That's also expected to prevent from 250 to 500 deaths annually from heart disease, and 600 to 1,200 heart attacks, as soon as three years after the rule takes effect, according to the FDA.

The new rule is the first major change to the nutrition facts box since the label was introduced in 1993.

The labeling requirement does not apply to restaurant food, but the increased scrutiny of trans fats may lead to changes there as well. McDonald's announced last fall it planned to use a trans-fat-free oil for its French fries, but has since put those plans on hold.

Substituting oils can affect the taste and texture of a product, said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, an association of food and beverage companies.

"Our companies are looking at those options and how they would affect taste," Childs said. "We know consumers still choose products based on taste. If it tastes like cardboard, they don't want it."

Elizabeth Lee writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail:

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