In a bid to raise consumer consciousness and make it easier for Americans to choose a heart-healthy diet, the government said this week that food makers would be required to indicate on the nutrition label if their product contains artery-clogging trans fatty acids.
Trans fat is commonly found in processed foods, like crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, salad dressings and some margarine. It delivers an unhealthy, one-two punch, because not only does it raise LDL or "bad" cholesterolwhich pushes up the risk of heart diseaseit lowers HDL or "good" cholesterol, which helps protect against heart disease.
Example of revised
Nutrition Facts panel
At the moment, the Nutrition Facts panel on all packaged foods lists total fat and saturated fat, but not trans fat.
"This label change means that trans fat can no longer lurk, hidden, in our food choices," said Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan. "Americans will now be armed with better information to reduce their intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterolwhich could significantly lower the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in America today."
Nearly 13 million Americans suffer from heart disease and more than half a million die each year from causes related to heart disease. The government predicted that the new labeling requirements would save up to $1.8 billion each year in medical costs, lost productivity and pain and suffering.
The new rule won't take effect until January 1, 2006. Government officials anticipate that companies will begin complying much sooner.
It's the first significant change to the Nutrition Facts panel since it was established in 1993. Consumer groups have been lobbying for the addition for nearly a decade. The FDA first proposed adding trans fat to nutrition labels back in 1999, but the final decision was four years in the making.
Consumer advocacy groups called the move an important step in the right direction, but expressed disappointment that the new labels do not indicate a recommended daily intake for trans fat. Currently, the best advice is to keep trans fat intake to a minimum.
"The new labels will let consumers compare trans fat content from product to product, and that will be a great step forward," said Margo Wootan, Nutrition Policy Director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It will be hard, though, for people to tell if a given number of grams of trans fat is a lot or a little. Five grams may not seem like a lot, but it is."
Government officials said further changes in nutrition and product labels related to trans fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol may be in the pipeline.
"While giving consumers accurate information about the trans fat content of their foods is an important step forward, we must do more to help consumers improve their nutrition," said FDA's McClellan. "Consequently, we are also giving notice that we intend to take further steps to increase consumer understanding of the importance of limiting consumption of trans fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol in their diet."