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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 27, 2003

The really bad fat

By Elena Conis
Los Angeles Times

Oreo cookies
Trans fat: 2.5 g

Original Wheat Thins
Trans fat: 2 g

Glazed doughnut*
Trans fat: 4 g

Nabisco Chips Ahoy! cookies
Trans fat: 1.5 g

Fat contents are based on a single serving. Source: Consumer Reports, manufacturers labels and Kraft Foods.

* Information based on a glazed donut from Dunkin' Donuts.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

New labels are on the way to inform Americans how much trans fats they're ingesting. But the real battle is getting people to eat better, whether by education or consumer pressure.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a new rule last month requiring that packaged foods will have to list their trans-fat contents by January 2006. Consumers must learn not only to look for the new information, but to understand what it means for their health and how to choose healthier foods.

The FDA estimates that the new line on packaged foods' nutrition facts panels will prevent 600 to 1,200 heart attacks a year, saving 250 to 500 lives annually by 2009.

That calculation is based not just on the number of people who use food labels, but on the rate at which the FDA estimates the labeling change will spur manufacturers to reduce or remove trans fat from products on the market.

In other words, it's the manufacturers that could have the biggest impact on the choices we make.

"Most people do not even pick up the package and look at the label" on packaged foods, said Gail Frank, professor of nutrition at California State University-Long Beach and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Why do we think having a trans-fat listing is enough to make people drop a food item or put it back on the shelf?"

Studies have shown that people who do read food labels regularly tend to have low-fat diets. They also tend to be women, people under 35 years of age, and those with more than a high school education, according to a study conducted at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle in 1999. That's right: Many people who read the food labels are those least likely to need big dietary changes.

In recent years more than half a dozen studies have confirmed that trans fat, a type of unsaturated fat that acts like saturated fat, increases levels of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol in the blood. The fat, also known as partially hydrogenated oil, is produced when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them solid and more durable. It's found in many cookies, crackers, snack foods and fried foods. It's also found naturally in red meats and dairy products containing fat.

The amount of trans fat grams in a food will be listed below the fat portion of nutrition labels. Frito Lay reformulated some of their products to remove the saturated fat. They already list the amount of trans fat in several snack foods such as: Lays Classic and Ruffles potato chips, Funyuns, Tostitos — all which have 0 grams of trans fat.

If you see "partially hydrogenated oil" in an ingredients label, you have your hands on a food with trans fat.
The FDA is working with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health to develop educational materials about the fat and is considering additional trans-fat labeling, including a footnote on the nutrition facts panel to remind consumers that trans- and saturated-fat levels should be kept low for a "heart-healthy diet."

The agency also may soon grant permission for manufacturers to advertise foods as "trans-fat free." Such health claims made on the covers of food packaging tend to have more influence on the decisions people make about what foods to eat than do nutrition facts labels, said Matthew Kreuter, director of the health communication research laboratory at the Saint Louis University School of Public Health.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the advocacy group that led the effort to get trans fat listed on food labels, said labels are an important step, though, in large part because they force food makers to change. "Once food companies have to reveal trans fat, they're likely to reformulate foods to reduce the fat," she said.

Such changes are under way. Some manufacturers are already listing trans fat information on their labels. And last year, Frito Lay reformulated several snack foods to remove trans fat in anticipation of the FDA's announcement. Several margarine manufacturers have taken similar steps.

 •  Trans fat facts

Trans fat is formed by hydrogenating liquid oils, turning them into solid fats such as shortening and hard margarine. Like saturated fat, it can raise levels of low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol.

Health-conscious consumers are advised to choose foods low in trans fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. All are associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Nearly 13 million Americans have coronary heart disease, and more than 500,000 die each year from causes related to heart disease.

Foods in a typical American diet that often have the most trans fat are french fries, potato chips, doughnuts, cakes that use shortening and hard margarine.

Mono-unsaturated fats such as olive and canola oils and poly-unsaturated fats such as soybean, corn and sunflower oils do not raise levels of LDL cholesterol.

— Source: American Medical Association

But simply calling attention to trans fat may not be enough. Wootan said the new label won't put trans fat amounts into the context of a daily diet. That is, the new labels will list only the grams of trans fat per serving, not the daily amount recommended for a healthful diet."The number on the label can sound low but really be a lot," said Wootan. People consume an average of just under 6 grams of trans fat daily, but according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, on which the FDA's rule was partly based, the fat is not an essential part of a healthful diet.

The report didn't recommend eliminating trans fat entirely, however. Because it's in so many foods, avoiding it completely may make it hard to get an adequately nutritious diet, it said. The FDA has said more research is needed to establish a recommended daily value for the fat.

Even without a daily value, said Wootan, consumers can compare the number of grams of trans and saturated fats in different foods to "pick the one that's best for the heart." Right now, she said, "you only get half the story" from labels — the amount of saturated fat alone.

Wootan said her group recommends getting no more than 20 grams a day from trans and saturated fats combined. The American Heart Association says no more than 10 percent of daily calories should come from the two fats.

• • •

Word about harmful effects of trans fat starting to spread

 •  How to calculate trans-fat content

Without the label information, calculating trans fats in a product is hit and miss.

When monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat grams are listed on the label, consumers can make a rough calculation by adding these numbers to the saturated fat grams listed, then subtracting from the total fat grams listed. This leaves an imperfect estimate of the trans fat contained.

For example, Oreos have seven grams of total fat in one serving. Adding saturated fat, poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fat gives five grams. The two grams remaining are mostly trans fat.

A serving of Wheat Thins has six grams of total fat. Adding the saturated, poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fat gives three grams. That leaves three grams of mostly trans fat.

— Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Concern is growing over the effects of trans fats in American diets. The Advertiser conducted a quick survey to see how island folks measure up, knowledge-wise:
  • Six out of 10 people knew what trans fat was.
  • Of the six, all could identify specific dangers.
  • Five out of 10 people said they look at food labels when shopping at the supermarket.
  • Four of the 10 said the new food labels would influence their eating habits.

All surveyed, however, approved of the FDA's decision.

"At least you know what you're getting," said Felisa Fuentes, 27, of 'Aiea. "It might say reduced fat, but how much fat and what kind of fat?"

For people like John Bourne, the publicity about trans fats and their harmful effects has served as a wake-up call.

"Whoa, that's a problem," said the 24-year-old resident of Pahoa. "It will probably make me look at food labels more."

The new food labels will come to a Twinkie near you by January 2006.

— Noelle Chun, Advertiser staff writer