Trans-Fat Free: A Big Fat Lie?

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December 13, 2011

By James J. Gormley

On October 20, 2011, the results of the second part of a two-phase study from the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board were published, Front-of-Package Nutrition Ratings Systems and Symbols: Promoting Healthier Choices, which concluded that “it is time for a move away from front-of-package systems that mostly provide nutrition information on foods or beverages but don’t give clear guidance about their healthfulness, and toward one that encourages healthier choices through simplicity, visual clarity, and the ability to convey meaning without written information.”

Although I hesitate to embrace a set of kindergarten logos or icons in lieu of more detailed information, as WebMD reported on November 28th “What you see on the front of the label is never going to be the full story. It’s still important to turn the package around and look at the Nutrition Facts panel […].”

A November study, that was published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA), reported on the results of a psychological and consumer-behavior study that used an eye-tracking device to see what consumers are really looking at on labels regardless of what they say they are looking for.

Twenty percent of the 203 participants actually looked for “trans fat free,” which is a testament to consumers perspicacity yet not especially reassuring given the Houdini-esque wiggle room given food producers in the use of this label. A label is allowed to say “trans fat free” if it has less than 500 mg of trans fat per serving!

Current law requires that products with less than five grams be listed in 0.5 gram increments, and lower than 0.5 grams as containing zero grams of fat. “Meaning, if a product has 0.49 grams of trans fat, the label can list the trans fat content as zero,” noted ScienceDaily on January 3, 2011, “thus masking a significant amount of trans fat that can exceed recommended limits and potentially lead to various adverse health effects.”

In fact, a study by Eric J. Brandt in the January/February 2011 issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion showed, according to ScienceDaily, that “misleading labeling practices can result in medically significant intake of harmful trans fat, despite what you read on Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved labels.”

“This labeling policy may result in people thinking they are consuming foods with no trans fats, when in fact they may be consuming food that cumulatively include trans fats in excess of 1% of total dietary consumption,” says the author, who also advocates that food labeling laws should be changed to require trans fat content be labeled in 0.1-gram increments.

Despite this deceptive labeling conundrum, don’t expect immediate help from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), our country’s deceptive labeling cops, since the FTC publicly lauded the FDA’s trans fat labeling scheme in testimony before the FDA in 2002, when they said:

“We are concerned, however, that the unique treatment proposed for trans fats on the Nutrition Facts panel may suggest to consumers that there is a significant qualitative difference between saturated fats and trans fats, and such a conclusion appears to be inconsistent with current dietary advice.”

Well, guess what, FTC, there is a significant qualitative difference between trans fats and saturated fats, so it’s good that consumers can distinguish between them, questions of hidden trans fats aside momentarily.

Trans fats: lower good (HDL) cholesterol, increase levels of atherosclerosis-causing lipoprotein-(a), cause tissues to lose good omega-3 fats, interfere with insulin, increase anti-cardiovascular C-reactive protein, interere with enzymes that metabolize fats, and interfere with the functioning of the immune system, whereas saturated fats do not.

Now, mind you, I am not pointing out these differences to promote saturated fat, which we want in only very low levels in our diet, but to draw the distinction between natural saturated fats and artificial, partially hydrogenated trans fats, which are in fact, dear FTC, even worse than saturated.

All this boils down to the fact that we have to be extra-vigilant when trying to determine what the trans fat level is in our foods, even if it says trans fat free. You should check to see if there are any partially hydrogenated fats listed — if there are, then you probably want to put it back on the shelf!

It’s hard enough to eat healthfully with the deceptive food labeling that food manufacturers cook up on their own; it’s even worse when the deceptive labeling is developed by the FDA and applauded by the FTC!

Caveat comestor! Eater beware!