Nowadays more and more Americans are reading the Nutrition Facts labels found on foods and beverages—but what if we weren’t getting the whole truth?
Even as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working toward a label makeover to help provide consumers with more clarity about the foods they are eating, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that many processed foods claiming to be free of harmful trans fats actually are not.
CDC experts analyzed more than 4,300 popular packaged foods available in grocery stores and found that 9 percent of the food items contained trans fats even though 84 percent claimed they were either “trans fat-free” or contained “0 grams of trans fat.” The reason has to do with the fact that manufacturers are allowed to round down anything less than 0.5 g of trans fat, which means consumers may be eating the unhealthy fats even when they think they aren’t.
Despite their harmful effects on human health, trans fats can still be found in many commonly bought products—including pre-packaged snack foods such as cookies, crackers and chips, as well as in microwave popcorn, cake mixes and frostings, packaged pudding, pie crusts, pancake and waffle mixes, non-dairy creamer, margarine and many frozen foods (including frozen pizza).
Based on their findings, researchers believe that not only should health officials do a better job of restricting trans fats in food products, but that yes—food labels need to be much clearer when it comes to representing the true amount as well as the health risks associated with trans fats.
In 1994 the Center for Science in the Public Interest first petitioned the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require companies to list the amount of artificial trans fats on nutrition labels. Now, more than 15 years later, the FDA hopes to greatly reduce the amount of harmful fats in the American food supply and has taken a positive step toward improving national hearth health.
Just last week the agency proposed that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs)—the primary dietary source of artificial trans fats—no longer be “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. Despite being a significant contributor to heart disease, trans fats can still be found in many products, including pre-packaged baked goods, frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn and even coffee creamer. Under the new ruling, PHOs would be considered “food additives” and could not be used in food unless companies were able to prove their safety.
“The FDA’s action today is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat,” stated FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. in a November 7 press release. “Further reduction in the amount of trans fat in the American diet could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year—a critical step in the protection of Americans’ health.”
Although trans fats occur naturally in small amounts (mainly in meat and dairy foods), most are created artificially by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation, which increases the shelf life of processed foods and enhances the flavor and texture. Unlike beneficial monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, trans fats have been shown to raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. In addition, trans fats lower HDL or “good” cholesterol levels, and scientists believe even two or three grams a day can increase the health risk.
While most U.S. food manufacturers and restaurants (including fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken) have already significantly reduced or discontinued their use of trans fats, the FDA hopes to target the last remaining culprits. Following the announcement, the agency opened a 60-day comment period to “collect additional data” and give manufacturers enough time to reformulate products if the ruling is finalized.