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New Label for Worst Fat

The Secret Fat—Unmasked

By David Mendosa

Last Update: January 2, 2010

Some people think that all fats are bad for you. But the experts know that some fats are good for you and some are worse than others.

The worst fat is the increasingly common trans fat.

About 40 percent of supermarket foods contain trans fat.

Careful studies show that trans fat raises LDL (bad) cholesterol and substantially lowers HDL (good) cholesterol. It has other effects that lead to clogged arteries that result in more heart disease.

Even worse, trans fat is practically invisible to the consumer. The good news is that this situation is about to change. The Food and Drug Administration is poised to add trans fat to the nutrition facts label, the first change since it became mandatory in 1993.

In 1999 the FDA proposed including the amount of trans fat on the nutrition label with the final rule to be published last year. But a few months ago it said that the many public comments it got had slowed them down. The FDA also waited for the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences to complete its study so that it could set a daily value and upper limit for trans fat.

The Institute released its long-awaited report this summer. It recommended that we keep our trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible, because “there is a positive linear trend between trans fatty acid intake and [both] total and LDL cholesterol concentration.” Consumption of trans fatty acid, therefore, increases the risk of coronary heart disease, the institute's report says.

This suggests that the upper limit of trans fat should be zero, the report continued. About 95 percent of trans fat in our diet comes from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which can be eliminated. But meat and dairy products have some natural trans fat, and eliminating them from our diet would require “extraordinary changes” that could lead to our getting too little protein and certain micronutrients.

Consequently, the Institute did not propose an upper limit. Diabetes Wellness News asked a spokesperson for the FDA if the lack of an upper limit mean further delays in implementing the trans fat labeling rule.

Apparently not. “Now that we have the Institute of Medicine report, we will go ahead and write a final rule on trans fatty acid,” the FDA spokesperson says. “We expect that we will issue it early next year. It will give manufacturers several months to put information about the amount of trans fatty acid on the Nutrition Facts panels of their products.

“But because the Institute of Medicine did not give an upper level or reference daily intake, the FDA will not be able to set a daily value for trans fat. In effect, that means only that the Nutrition Facts panel on food products will not show any daily value.”

Because trans fat is linked to heart disease, the new label will be especially relevant to people with diabetes. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Heart disease is the leading cause of diabetes-related deaths. Adults with diabetes have heart disease death rates about 2 to 4 times higher than adults without diabetes.”

Trans fat consumption is also associated with the risk of getting type 2 diabetes in the first place. Last year The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published research that took a new look at the amount and types of fat that 84,204 women ate over a 14-year period and how many of them got type 2 diabetes. The study found no association between total fat, saturated fat, or monounsaturated fat and the risk of type 2 diabetes. Polyunsaturated fat reduced the risk. Only trans fat increased the risk of type 2 diabetes among the women studied.

About 40 percent of supermarket foods contain trans fat. The FDA says that it's in 95 percent of cookies, 80 percent of frozen breakfast foods, 75 percent of salty snacks and chips, 70 percent of cake mixes, and almost half of all cereals. The products that it lists with the most trans fat include vegetable shortening, doughnuts, stick margarine, french fries, and microwaved popcorn.

What can you do now before the labels will show how much trans fat there is in the foods you eat? You need to read the package's “Ingredients” list. But it usually won’t say “trans fat.” For your health look for the words “partially hydrogenated,” “hydrogenated,” or “fractionated” and avoid those products. 

This article originally appeared in Diabetes Wellness News, October 2002, p. 2.

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