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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government is lifting the curtain on a little-known artery clogger that hides inside an amazing variety of foods: The labels of everything from chips to bread, margarine to energy bars, will have to reveal exactly how much "trans fat" they harbor.
The new Food and Drug Administration rule, unveiled Wednesday, puts trans fat on par with its more infamous cousin, saturated fat. Both can cause the heart disease that afflicts 13 million Americans -- and many doctors actually consider trans fat the worst artery clogger.
Now, both fats will be listed on the food label.
"Our choices about our diets are choices about our health, and those choices should be based on the best available scientific information," said FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan. "This label change means trans fat can no longer lurk, hidden, in our food choices."
The FDA estimated Wednesday that the labeling could prevent up to 1,200 cases of heart disease and 500 deaths a year, as people either choose healthier foods or manufacturers change their recipes to leave out the damaging ingredient.
Companies will have until 2006 to phase in the labels. But many aren't waiting as they jockey for position in the competitive anti-fat market. Already, Frito-Lay has announced it is eliminating trans fat from its popular Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos. Wednesday, Unilever Bestfoods announced that its line of "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" margarine spreads will be free of trans fat by next year.
The new rule is "a good first step," said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which petitioned FDA in 1993 to make the change. "People will be able to compare different products and determine which ones are worse for their hearts."
But Wootan said the FDA didn't go far enough: The labels won't tell consumers how much each doughnut or dollop of margarine counts against their daily allotment of total unhealthy fat. Nor will they bear a message FDA debated this spring -- that trans fat consumption should be as low as possible.
Say a snack has 5 grams of trans fat. That doesn't sound like much. But although the government hasn't set a safe-consumption limit for trans fat alone, Wootan advises eating no more than 20 grams a day of all heart-damaging fats. So that snack could be a quarter of the allotment -- more if it contains saturated fat, too.
Products advertised as low in saturated fat could still have lots of trans fat, so consumers should check, she cautioned.
Saturated fat is found primarily in meat and other products containing animal fat. The most common source of trans fat, which is in numerous processed foods, is partially hydrogenated vegetable oil -- where liquid oil is turned into a solid to protect against spoiling and maintain long-term flavor.
Typically, the harder a margarine or cooking fat, the more trans fat it includes. Soft, spreadable margarine in tubs, for instance, contains little if any trans fat, while stick margarine can contain a lot. In other foods, the only way consumers could tell which contained trans fat was to check the ingredient list for the word "hydrogenated."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)