August 28, 2009
By David Gutierrez
FDA food labeling rules make it possible for consumers to exceed their maximum recommended daily intake of trans fats even if they eat only foods labeled “zero trans fats” per serving.
Trans fats, also known as hydrogenated oils, are synthetically produced by adding hydrogen atoms to unsaturated vegetable oils. Unlike natural unsaturated or saturated fats, trans fats have no nutritional value. They have been overwhelmingly shown to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, such that several large cities and the state of California have banned their use in restaurants.
The fats are favored by food producers because they have a longer shelf life than natural fats. But growing consumer awareness over the dangers of trans fats has led more and more people to avoid them. According to a recent survey by Greenfield Online, 72 percent of U.S. residents read nutritional labels to make food purchasing decisions, and 61 percent believe that “zero trans fats” is the most important claim for a heart-healthy food.
Yet because the FDA allows nutrient content to be rounded to the nearest half gram, all food producers need to do to make a “zero trans fats” claim is set the serving size low enough that it contains no more than 0.49 grams of trans fats.
According to Steve Hughes, chief executive officer of Smart Balance, even consumers looking out for trans fats on nutritional labels “could exceed the daily limit before they even sit down to dinner.”
The FDA recommends a maximum daily trans fat intake of two grams.
Consumers can still avoid trans fats by reading ingredient labels. Any food that contains “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils actually contains trans fats, regardless of what it might say on the label or in the nutritional information box.
“The good news is Americans are making healthier food choices a priority and they clearly recognize the dangers of trans fat,” said dietitian Alyse Levine. “But unfortunately reading the fine print is necessary to ensure they’re not getting more trans fat and putting their health at greater risk than they bargained for.”