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New Food Label May Help With Diet Resolutions in 2006

Armen Hareyan's picture

Nutrition Labels

Muffin fans, your days of willful ignorance are at an end. Starting New Year's Day, a list of trans fats - often included in commercially baked and prepared foods to extend their shelf life - will be required to appear on food labels so that consumers will know just how much of this unhealthy fat is in the foods they love. Also effective January 1 are US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules requiring that food manufacturers identify products containing allergenic proteins from any of the eight major allergy-inducing foods: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans. The trans fat labeling, especially, is likely to affect almost every diet-conscious American.

Trans Fats Increase Health Risks

Trans fats, like saturated fats, are known to be risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Both types of fat raise LDL "bad" cholesterol levels. But until now, while saturated fats are included in all food labeling, food manufacturers have not been required to identify the amount of trans fats in their products.

Nutritionists and savvy consumers know that most trans fats are formed by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, so labels that included the words "hydrogenated," or "partially hydrogenated" were tip-offs that trans fats were probably in the food. But that did not help quantifying the amount of trans fats, says Karen Collins, a nutrition advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research. "Until now, we had no idea whether there was a lot or just a little trans fats in a food." Also confusing is that there is no recommended daily limit for trans fats, so even if you do know what you are eating, you do not know if it is too much, she says.

But Collins said that the new information, mandated by the FDA, can be easily used to help people eat more wisely by treating trans fats like saturated fats. Most food labeling is based on a 2000-calorie diet, Collins says. Consumers who look at the bottom of the label will see that, at that calorie-intake level, 20 grams is the recommended daily limit for saturated fat. The fact that trans fats will now be included on labeling means consumers can now just add them to saturated fats to see how close they are to that daily limit. "This will help people who have been uncertain [about the fats in foods] to be much more concrete about what's in these foods," Collins adds. Further, she says, it gives people more information when they make food choices. Because they know the total fat contents of the foods they like, they can choose the ones that have the least fat. "It allows people to identify what foods are most important to them, look at the cost to their health, then ... decide what's worth it and what's not," Collins says. "By taking ownership of these choices, we can make a real difference in our health."

She compares the decision making to buying clothes - people have a certain budget and work within that budget when choosing a new outfit. If they could look at their food intake the same way, they could eat foods they like in healthier amounts.

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New Label is Motivation for Food Manufacturers

Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at the Friedman School at Tufts University, says the benefit of the new trans fat labeling is not just for individuals. "It has a collateral benefit in [motivating food manufacturers] to lower the trans fats in their products," she says. "It really causes the reformulation of products." Lichtenstein says that consumers need not be overwhelmed by the new labeling - "It shouldn't be this perception that it's going to be so much information." She says people usually buy the same foods each week and should spend a little time, once, looking at the labels to see what trans fats are contained in their favorite foods. "People may decide to switch - they may find a better alternative - or not," she says. "They will choose."

Allergens Also Labeled

Choice will also be an option now under the new FDA requirement for labeling allergen content in food. Labels must now clearly state whether a product contains even trace amounts of allergenic proteins from milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans.

The move comes after the passage of the 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, aimed at protecting the estimated 2 percent of adults and 5 percent of young children vulnerable to sometimes life-threatening food allergies. Each year, 30,000 Americans are treated in hospital emergency rooms for dangerous allergic reactions, and 150 die from fatal reactions.

One important detail: the new labeling will be child-friendly, adding the word "milk" alongside the more mysterious "casein" (a milk protein), for example.

Always consult your physician for more information.