Trans Fat Content vs. Nutrition Labels: Are You Being Misled by Government Guidelines?

(Originally published Dec. 2, 2008 – Suite101.com)

2 - author cohdra, morguefile.com 2006

As bad as trans fats are to our diet and health, our government has unfortunately sold us a little short on being informed about their presence in our food. Despite tough 2006 FDA regulations mandating that all food nutrition labels list trans fat, numerous loopholes to this policy exist.

Under these new guidelines, food companies are allowed to say that their product contains “0 grams of trans fat” if the amount of trans fat per serving is less than 0.5 grams (500 mg). Therefore, a product advertising it has zero grams of trans fat may, in fact, actually contain up to several grams of trans fat in the product as a whole.

While half a gram may not sound like much to worry about, an April 2006 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine stated that, “…complete or near-complete avoidance of industrially produced trans fats…may be necessary to avoid adverse effects and would be prudent to minimize health risks”.

Their definition of “near-complete avoidance”? About 1g per day for a 2000 calorie diet.

The above study is especially important when considering that companies often advertise “0g trans fat” on the front of their packaging, typically in bright, bold lettering – a move that is clearly intended to deceive you into believing that “0” is the same as “none”. And this is perfectly legal under current U.S. government guidelines.

READ INGREDIENTS LABELS

The only way to truly tell if a product you are considering purchasing contains trans fat is to read the ingredients label. If you see the words “hydrogenated”, “partially hydrogenated”, “shortening” or “margarine” then the product contains some amount of trans fat.

While the ingredients label doesn’t tell you how much trans fat a product may contain, you can determine an approximate amount by the position of the wording in the ingredients list – the closer the wording is to the top of the list, the more it contains relative to other ingredients.

Finally, it’s important to understand serving size. Companies will often shrink their serving sizes to bring them into compliance with the 0g per serving rule. So unless you eat based on recommended serving size, you may unknowingly consume large amounts of trans fat while believing you’ve consumed none at all!

AN EXAMPLE OF DECEPTIVE ADVERTISING

A perfect example of deceptive advertising can be seen in a certain product many of us consider an annual tradition – Girl Scout Cookies.

In 2005, The Girl Scouts of America began running an ad campaign declaring that their cookies no longer contain trans fat. And if you ask any of the parents helping their children to sell these products, they will proudly proclaim the party line of “trans fat free” while remaining themselves blissfully unaware of the lie.

The sad fact is, that while a given cookie box may say “0g trans fat”, most of them still contain hydrogenated oil in their ingredients list.

In short, don’t fall prey to this type of misleading advertising! Given that trans fats have numerous health concerns associated with them, it’s best to look for healthy alternatives that don’t use any hydrogenated oils whatsoever. Just remember to read your ingredients labels to make sure.

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