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THURSDAY, Jan. 12 (HealthDay News) -- When it comes to food labels that list levels of unhealthy trans fats, zero plus zero doesn't always equal zero.
That's because newly implemented U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules on labeling allow foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving to claim "zero" grams of trans fats on their labels.
Under these guidelines, which went into effect on Jan. 1, a food with 0.4 grams of trans fats can be listed as having zero trans fats. That means that Americans who consume three or four servings of these foods in a day will have unwittingly eaten an extra gram or two of trans fats.
And that's important because trans fats, like saturated fats, can raise the risk of heart disease as they increase levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Currently, the FDA estimates that Americans consume an average 5.8 grams of trans fats per day.
Barbara Schneeman, director of the Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements for the FDA said the reason the FDA is allowing foods under 0.5 grams of trans fats to be rounded down to zero is that current detection methods for trans fats aren't very reliable below 0.5 grams.
"I don't understand why that's acceptable. It will add up over time," said nutritionist Samantha Heller, from New York University Medical Center.
So, what's a concerned consumer to do?
"If you see a food with zero trans fat, check the ingredient list. Look for the words, 'partially hydrogenated.' If you see partially hydrogenated, that means the product contains some trans fats," said Heller.
The FDA adds that products with shortening or hydrogenated oils in their ingredient lists also contain some trans fats, and the higher up in the ingredient list you find those items, the greater the amount of trans fats the product will contain.
Trans fats are created when liquid oils are transformed into solids, a process called hydrogenation. They're prevalent in many processed foods because they add to a product's shelf life and increase flavor stability.
Heller said that most foods containing trans fats are foods you should eat in moderation anyway. She said they're often found in deep-fried restaurant foods, doughnuts, cookies, cakes and muffins.
Both Heller and Schneeman emphasize that trans fats are only part of the picture.
"You can't look at trans fat alone. Some manufacturers might have eliminated trans fat by using products that are high in saturated fat," said Schneeman. "What we encourage consumers to do, to help lower their cardiovascular risk, is to look at trans fat, saturated fat and cholesterol levels. A product can have zero grams of trans fat, but what is the amount of saturated fat?"
She also said that consumers should check food labels to see how much cholesterol a product contains.
"Trans fats are bad for you. Minimize them as much as possible. But be careful, because many companies are replacing trans fats with saturated fats," said Heller. "Just because something has zero trans fats doesn't mean people can eat as much as they want. We don't want to repeat the 'Snackwell Syndrome' when people thought they could eat a whole box of cookies because they were fat-free."
SOURCES: Barbara Schneeman, Ph.D., director, Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, College Park, Md.; Samantha Heller, M.S., R.D., senior clinical nutritionist, New York University Medical Center, New York City
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