Trans Fats: Required on Labels Soon

Trans fat coming to a label near you!

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires food manufacturers to list trans fat (i.e., trans fatty acids) on the food label -- in the Nutrition Facts panels.

Scientific evidence shows that consumption of saturated fat, trans fat, and dietary cholesterol raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol levels that increase the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, over 12.5 million Americans suffer from CHD, and more than 500,000 die each year. This makes CHD one of the leading causes of death in the United States today.

FDA has required that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol be listed on the food label since 1993. By adding trans fat on the Nutrition Facts panel (required by January 1, 2006), consumers will now know for the first time how much of all three -- saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol -- are in the foods they choose. Identifying saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol on the food label gives consumers information to make heart-healthy food choices that help them reduce their risk of CHD.

This new revised label, which includes information on trans fat as well as on saturated fat and cholesterol, will be of particular interest to people concerned about high blood cholesterol and heart disease. However, all Americans should be aware of the risk posed by consuming too much saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. But what is trans fat, and how can you limit the amount of this fat in your diet?

What is trans fat?

Unlike other fats, the majority of trans fat is formed when food manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine. However, a small amount of trans fat is found naturally, primarily in some animal-based foods.

Essentially, trans fat is made when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil -- a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods containing these fats.

Trans fat, like saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, raises the LDL (or "bad") cholesterol that increases your risk for CHD. On average, Americans consume 4 to 5 times as much saturated fat as trans fat in their diet.

Although saturated fat is the main dietary culprit that raises LDL, trans fat and dietary cholesterol also contribute significantly. Trans fat can often be found in processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils such as vegetable shortenings, some margarines (especially margarines that are harder), crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, and baked goods.

Where will I find trans fat?

You will find trans fats in many products including vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods, and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils.

Are all fats the same?

Simply put: "No." Fat is a major source of energy for the body and aids in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K, and carotenoids. Both animal and plant-derived food products contain fat. And, when eaten in moderation, fat is important for proper growth, development, and maintenance of good health.

As a food ingredient, fat provides taste, consistency, and stability and helps us feel full. In addition, parents should be aware that fats are an especially important source of calories and nutrients for infants and toddlers (up to 2 years of age), who have the highest energy needs per unit of body weight of any age group.

Saturated and trans fats raise LDL (or "bad") cholesterol levels in the blood, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease. Dietary cholesterol also contributes to heart disease. Unsaturated fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, do not raise LDL cholesterol and are beneficial when consumed in moderation. Therefore, it is advisable to choose foods low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol as part of a healthful diet.

What can I do about saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol?

When comparing foods, look at the Nutrition Facts panel, and choose the food with the lower amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Health experts recommend that you keep your intake of these nutrients as low as possible while consuming a nutritionally adequate diet. However, these experts recognize that eliminating these three components entirely from your diet is not practical because they are unavoidable in ordinary diets.

Where can I find trans fat on the food label?

Consumers can find trans fat listed on the Nutrition Facts panel directly under the line for saturated fat. Although some food products already have trans fat on the label, food manufacturers have until January 2006 to list it on all their products.

For more information, please visit our Nutrition Center.

This article is based on information provided with the kind permission of The Food and Drug Administration (www.cfsan.fda.gov)


Last Editorial Review: 2/1/2005