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The Scoop On Trans Fat: What It Is, Why It's Bad?

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The nutrition label on your box of favorite crackers or cookies will soon have an ominous new addition: trans fat.

The government is announcing today that foodmakers will be required to list the amount of heart-unhealthy trans fat on the nutrition facts panel on most store-bought products. The action won't take effect until Jan. 1, 2006, but many food makers might modify labels sooner.

Q: What foods contain trans fat, and what is it?

A: Trans fat is found in many processed foods such as cookies, pastries, crackers, pies, frozen foods and margarine. It's also found in fried foods at many fast-food and other chain restaurants and in small amounts in dairy and meat products.

The artery-clogging fat is formed during a manufacturing process called hydrogenation, which converts liquid oil to a solid fat. Partially hydrogenated oils are useful because they extend products' shelf life.

Q: What will happen as a result of adding trans fat to the nutrition label?

A: People will be able to choose products that are the lowest in trans fat, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The Washington-based consumer group has been fighting for the trans fat label change for 10 years. But the label won't indicate how that amount of trans fat fits into a day's diet, she says.

The change may prompt foodmakers to try to lower the trans fat in their products.

Q: Why is trans fat unhealthy?

A: It raises bad (LDL) cholesterol but doesn't raise good (HDL) cholesterol. On the other hand, saturated fat, found in fatty meat and full-fat dairy products, raises both bad and good cholesterol, says Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston and vice chairwoman of the nutrition committee for the American Heart Association.

Trans fat may be a little bit worse for people than saturated fat, but most people get only about 1% to 2% of their calories from trans fat, Lichtenstein says. They eat five or six times more saturated fat than trans fat, she says. People shouldn't become so obsessed with trans fat that they forget to limit saturated fat.

People need ''to look at the whole label and not just one element,'' says Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing brand-name foods and beverages. The group supports the listing of trans fat on labels.

Q: How much trans fat should you eat?

A: Although there is no formal recommendation on the exact amount, Lichtenstein advises limiting trans fat and saturated fat to about 10% or less of daily calories. So a person who eats 2,000 calories a day should aim for no more than about 22 grams of these two fats.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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