The FDA proposes requiring the amount of trans fatty acids in a food to be included in the Nutrition Facts panel.
The proposal would also define "trans fat free" and set a limit on trans fatty acids wherever there are limits on saturated fat in nutrient content or health claims.
Why Use Trans Fats?
Connie Crawley, an Extension Service food and nutrition specialist with the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences, said trans fatty acids are in many foods.
"Trans fatty acids are unsaturated fats that have become saturated fats by adding hydrogen to them," she said. "This hydrogenation makes them more stable and solid. They have more volume and texture and work better for baking. They make foods feel and look better."
They keep food from going stale so fast, too. "Manufacturers can make products farther ahead because they can keep them on the shelf longer," Crawley said.
Trans fat is found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snacks and other foods.
"If you make anything with shortening rather than oil, it's flakier and lighter," Crawley said.
Hard On Your Heart
But when it comes to food that's good for you, looks aren't everything.
"Research shows that trans fat has as negative an effect on serum cholesterol as saturated fat," Crawley said. "It's similar structurally. There seems to be a connection between trans fat and heart disease."
The American Heart Association says heart disease kills about 500,000 Americans each year. It's the No. 1 U.S. cause of death.
Crawley said labels now address heart disease prevention much more than nutritional deficiencies.
"We're more into health now and the best diet so we can have the highest quality of life for the longest time," she said.
The proposed rule on trans fatty acids would require adding the amount of trans fat per serving to the amount of saturated fat per serving. The amount and percent Daily Value per serving on the Nutrition Facts panel will be based on the sum of the two.
An asterisk would be required after the heading "Saturated fat" to refer to a footnote showing the grams of trans fat. The footnote would be optional on foods that contain less than 0.5 grams per serving, except when a fatty acid or cholesterol claim is made.
"This new label will help people minimize exposure to saturated fat and trans fatty acids," Crawley said. "It's almost impossible to avoid these fats. But this will help consumers regulate how much they're eating."
But the label only works in foods you prepare yourself.
"Only an estimated 20 percent of trans fatty acids are in labeled foods," Crawley said. "Most of what we eat is in restaurants, mostly fried and baked foods, where foods aren't labeled. The public that eats out a lot won't know how much they're eating."
But, she said, "if you eat fried foods in restaurants, be assured you're probably getting plenty of trans fatty acids."
Most restaurant fried foods are high in trans fatty acids, she said, because cooking oils that contain them taste better and last longer.
"Some major food companies offer a trans fatty acid-reduced shortening," Crawley said. "But there won't be any motivation for restaurants to change until there is a public outcry."
The bottom line: avoid fried foods.
"If you're going to eat fat, use oil," Crawley said. "If you eat oil, go with peanut, canola or olive oils. But don't use much of that either."
(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)