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Trans Fat Labeling Gets Tricky

Nutrition Facts panel makes it tough to make healthy choices, study shows

MONDAY, June 30 (HealthDay News) -- Are 3 or 4 grams of trans fats in a serving of baked or fried food bad for you, or can you stop worrying?

Answer: It's always unhealthy, since no amount of the artery-clogging artificial fat is good for you.

However, a new study suggests that the Nutrition Facts panel found on the side of grocery store products does a poor job of getting that message across to consumers.

"It's very misleading to just throw a number out there," contends study author Elizabeth Howlett, a professor of marketing at the University of Arkansas, in Little Rock.

Her team found that the average health-conscious consumer is often misled by trans fat information found on the Nutrition Facts panel.

The main problem is that because no amount of trans fat is good for you, it makes no sense to post a percentage of the "recommended daily value" -- as is done with other ingredients such as sugar, or total or saturated fats. So consumers are just left with a number -- such as 2, 3 or 4 grams of trans fat per serving -- and no way of interpreting how unhealthy that might be.

Furthermore, compared to the amounts of calories or carbohydrates listed on the Nutrition Facts panel -- which can often run into the dozens or hundreds of units -- a few grams of trans fat can seem harmless, Howlett said. In that context, consumers often think, "4 grams, wow, that looks good," she explained.

In reality, the American Heart Association states that anything over 2 grams per day of trans fat is definitely bad for you -- and it's preferred that your intake stay at zero.

The average consumer doesn't know this, however. Reporting in a recent issue of the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Howlett and her colleagues had nearly 600 adults assess the relative nutritional value of a number of snack crackers with Nutrition Facts labels that were manipulated to display varying levels of trans fat per serving.

All of the participants had good reason to eat healthy: In one experiment all the volunteers were diabetic, and in a second experiment they had all been diagnosed with heart disease.

And yet the Arkansas team found that, in the absence of any education as to how much trans fat per day is good or bad for you, most participants failed to associate 3 or 4 grams per serving of trans fat with cardiovascular risk.

"When you tell someone what the trans fat level is in a product, and don't give them any guidelines about how to evaluate what that number means, that can lead to some false inferences," Howlett said.

The addition of trans fat to the list of ingredients on the Nutrition Facts panel is the first major change to the label since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first introduced it back in 1994. Howlett didn't offer any fix of her own to make interpreting the label easier for consumers, but she believes that "there needs to be some educational component or campaign" whenever changes to the Nutrition Facts panel appear.

"That's something that the FDA would have to wrestle with," she said.

One labeling note did seem to help study participants make healthier food choices, Howlett said. A manufacturer's front-of-package claim that a product was "Low in Trans Fat" or had "Zero Trans Fat" did make participants more likely to consume the food in question.

Howlett supports the use of such claims, if valid, but notes that consumers still need to read the Nutrition Facts panel closely. That's because a product can have no trans fat but still be very high in unhealthy saturated fats or sugars, she said.

Discerning how much trans fat is in a take-out or sit-down restaurant meal can be even tougher. "Consumers have very little understanding in an away-from-home food context," Howlett said. "The information is there if consumers want to find it, but most consumers aren't highly motivated to sit at the Web and find out exactly how many calories and grams of fat and trans fat are in [restaurant] products."

The consequences of not knowing can be tough on the heart, however. According to a 2006 study from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a typical three-piece combo meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken contains a whopping 15 grams of trans fat.

Diners in New York City will soon have an easier time avoiding trans fats in restaurants, however. Starting Tuesday, health officials there are banning trans fats from menu items in the nation's largest city. A similar ban goes into effect in Philadelphia in September.

Things are slowly getting better in the grocery aisle, too, with most of the country's biggest manufacturers of packaged and processed foods beating a quick retreat from the use of trans fats in their products. But trans fat is still a prime component in many products. For example, Digiorno's Garlic Bread Crust Pepperoni Pizza For One contains 3.5 grams of trans fat per serving, as well as 16 grams of saturated fat, according to its Nutrition Facts panel. And Drake's Coffee Cakes also contain 2.5 grams of trans fat per serving (2 cakes), the product's panel says.

All of this means more must be done to educate consumers about the dangers of any level of trans fat, Howlett said. She believes the FDA needs to learn from the current confusion around trans fat numbers, to help consumers better interpret the Nutrition Facts panel the next time a change comes around.

"If there's going to be further changes -- because who knows what they are going to find next -- there also needs to be some sort of guidance for consumers, to be able to evaluate this information," Howlett said. "We are trying to get the information there that consumers need to make an informed choice, at the time that they are making the decision."

More information

To learn more about trans fats, visit the American Heart Association.

Avoiding Trans Fat

Dietitian Lona Sandon, national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and chair-elect of the Nutrition Educators of Health Professions, offers up the following tips on trans fats:

What is a trans fat?

"A trans fat is a type of man-made fat in which the chemical bonds of a vegetable oil, normally liquid at room temperature, are changed so that it becomes solid at room temperature and more shelf-stable," she said. The fats' chemical bonds become "twisted," hence the name "trans." Natural trans fats can occur as well, but they are not thought to be harmful.

Why are these compounds so bad for us?

According to Sandon, man-made trans fats have been shown to greatly boost levels of harmful LDL cholesterol, helping clog arteries with fatty plaques. Many nutritionists believe trans fats are even more dangerous than saturated fats.

How can I avoid trans fats?

"Trans fats are typically found in processed foods, particularly snack foods or bakery items," Sandon said. These would include cookies, crackers, pre-packaged donuts, muffins, even chewy granola bars. Always check labels. Better yet, stick to fresh, whole foods, vegetables, grains, nuts, lean meats, low-fat dairy and soft tub buttery spreads made with liquid vegetable oil.

If a product says "low" or "zero" trans fat, is it good for me?

Not necessarily. "You still must think about what else is in, or not in, the food," Sandon said. "The words [no] trans fat or low fat does not mean healthy."

SOURCES: Elizabeth Howlett, Ph.D., professor, marketing, University of Arkansas, Little Rock; Lona Sandon, M.Ed., R.D., assistant professor, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, and chair-elect, the Nutrition Educators of Health Professions; Spring 2008, Journal of Public Policy & Marketing

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