Sides square off in fat label fight
Food industry, some critics find FDA proposal hard to swallow
Sunday, March 16, 2003 Posted: 7:59 AM EST (1259 GMT)
Trans fats, saturated, unsaturated -- an FDA proposal would list them all on foods' labels.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government wants consumers to be aware that some foods contain unhealthy fats called trans-fatty acids, but its suggestion for labeling them is tough to swallow for the food industry and some advocates.
The Food and Drug Administration is considering requiring food companies to state how much trans-fatty acid is in a product, from cookies and potato chips to fried chicken and hundreds of others.
Studies show the nutrient can increase the risk of heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes.
The food industry accepts that at some point it will have to label trans fats, but it disagrees with the FDA's recent suggestion that the labels include a footnote saying, "Intake of trans fats should be as low as possible."
The phrase looks like a warning that will confuse consumers, said Regina Hildwine, head of food labeling and standards for the National Food Processors Association.
"It might tend to steer a consumer toward selecting a certain amount of saturated fat over any amount of trans fat," she said.
Saturated fat, found primarily in meat and other products containing animal fat, is another unhealthy fat. Under daily intake recommendations, consumers may nibble as much as 20 grams of saturated fat per day for a healthy diet.
A daily allowance has not yet been set for trans-fatty acids, also known as "trans fats."
Distinguishing between the fats
The Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences says any amount of trans-fatty acids can push up the risk of heart disease, hence the FDA's suggestion that people should eat as little of those fats as possible.
Walter Willett, head of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the footnote seems like a good idea but it is especially important that the label distinguish trans-fatty acids from saturated fats.
"Trans fats are not the same as saturated fats chemically and they're considerably worse in their effects," he said.
Trans fat is created by liquid vegetable oils that are heated in the presence of hydrogen. The hydrogenation hardens the oils at room temperature. Products made for frying and baking, such as grease and shortening, are made through the process.
While it can make baked foods tastier and moist, trans fat is a health risk because it can lower the good cholesterol that reduces the risk of clogged arteries and raise bad cholesterol, which builds up in arteries.
Although trans-fatty acids clearly are unhealthy, the footnote warning against eating trans fats goes too far, the Grocery Manufacturers of America says.
"Overall, we feel that the nutrition label should provide quantitative information and should not try to provide nutrition counseling," said Alison Kretser, a nutritionist for the trade group.
The organization recommends simply listing the amount of trans fat in grams.
The FDA first proposed labeling trans fats in 1999 but without the footnote. Some consumer groups, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have been lobbying the agency since 1993 to approve a trans-fat label and complain that the process has taken far too long.
"I think they're waiting for the Messiah to come," said Michael Jacobson, executive director for the center.
Like food companies, the center believes the footnote proposed by the FDA will confuse consumers. Other advocates, however, say a message warning consumers against eating trans fats is exactly what food labels should contain.
"Such a ruling would in fact force manufacturers not to use trans fat," said Dr. Marvin M. Lipman, a physician and chief medical adviser for Consumers Union.
Very few foods naturally produce trans fat, he said. But in foods where it has been added, "trans fat is not a necessary component. It's a manmade component."
The FDA has not said when it expects to approve the labeling requirements.