What is that trans fat on my food label?

Resolving to read and understand food labels this year will put you on the path to healthier eating, especially with a new food labeling law that took effect Jan. 1. The law requires trans fat to be disclosed on food labels.

"[It's] a very good thing," said Lola O'Rourke MS, RD and the Seattle-area spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

Since 1906, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has overseen issues which include nutrition labeling. Choosing food wisely is paramount amidst the rising incidence of overweight, obesity and diabetes among Americans of all ages. According to the May-June 2004 edition of the FDA Consumer and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "about 2 out of 3 adults in the United States are overweight or obese."

The article also states that since the typical American diet is "low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and high in saturated fat, salt and sugar... we are at increased risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain cancers" due to increased overweight and obesity.

Food energy

The most basic tenet of healthful eating is variety. Choosing foods from a wide range helps us better meet the body's requirements for good nutrition and health. The food label is a guide to the contents of a package, bottle or carton. Nutrition information is based upon an average 2,000-calorie-per-day diet established by the FDA. A measurement called the Percent Daily Value (or %DV) has been created to assist in meeting nutrient levels when consuming this average daily diet of 2,000 calories.

Calories are a measure of energy; energy comes from food. Food energy exists in three forms: carbohydrates, fats and proteins, which are measured in grams. (Approximately 28 grams equal one ounce). Not everyone needs 2000 calories per day however; your doctor and registered dietitian can help you determine a suitable caloric intake.

Carbohydrates and protein each contain 4 calories per gram; fats 9 calories per gram. Alcohol yields 7 calories per gram but no nutrients. Trouble arises when the body ingests too many calories and must store them as excess weight.

A fat problem

Looking at the amount of fat on a food label can reveal confusing information. Take 1- percent milk for example. It's called 1- percent milk because one percent of the weight of the milk is fat. This does not mean that the milk is 99% fat free however. The %DV says 4 percent.

The true amount of fat in the milk can be determined instead by this simple method: divide the number of calories from fat per 8-ounce serving (20) by the number of total calories per 8-ounce serving (100). This yields 20 percent; thus 1- percent milk is actually 20 percent fat.

Note: When the amount of fat per serving is listed in grams instead of calories, multiply that number by 9. This gives you the number of calories. Then proceed as above.

Also, when doing your calculations, don't forget serving size. A 12-ounce can of soda might express a serving size (and nutrition data) as 8-ounces, but people usually drink the whole can. Bags of snacks and chips often express a serving size as 20 chips or one ounce.

Not all fat is equal

It's true. Fats and their labels vary, especially when it comes to the new trans fat rule. A peanut butter label might say, "made without hydrogenated oil," "0 grams trans fatty acids," "reduced fat" or "natural." These distinctions are good for consumers, when they know the differences.

First of all, know that fat is important for good health. Fats come from many sources: the two basic ones being plants and animals. Plant-based fats are vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, canola (rapeseed), olive, nut, coconut and palm kernel among others.

Animal-based fats include dairy and meat products like milk, cream, cheese, butter, ice cream and lard. Animal fats are also included in egg yolks, meats, fish and poultry. Some products called 'spreads' combine the two types mixing vegetable oil with a small amount of milk or butter to improve flavor.

Fats give the body energy and carry vitamins like A, D, E and K. We can't do without them. But some forms of fat are more healthful for us than others. The three forms of fat are saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated.

Problems arise when hydrogen is added to vegetable oils (unsaturated) such as corn or soy. The oils become like fats, solid at room temperature, as in margarine and shortening. The result is called a trans fat.

According to Judith Shaw, author of "Trans Fats The Hidden Killer In Our Food," (Pocket Books, New York, 2004) the body cannot distinguish among fats we eat. Fats of animal origin always contain a small amount of trans fat naturally. However, the manufactured trans fats created through partial hydrogenation are particularly dangerous.

FDA-cited research bears this out. Unsaturated fats (mono and poly) are healthful if consumed in moderation; saturated and trans fats are not. Saturated and trans fats raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in the blood. LDL is often called bad cholesterol. A look at cholesterol explains why.

Cholesterol is an alcohol made by our bodies to form liver bile, which is necessary for the digestion of fats, vitamin D and many hormones.

Along with LDL, there is also high-density lipoprotein (HDL), referred to as good cholesterol. LDL has been found to increase the risk of coronary heart disease, according to the FDA. Saturated fats and trans fats raise the LDL level in the blood. Additionally, trans fats are known to lower the amount of HDL in the blood.

The new labeling law for trans fat states that a food can be labeled "zero trans fat" or "trans fat free" if the amount of trans fat per serving is less than one-half gram.

However, the sure way to determine whether or not a food contains trans fat, is to read the ingredient list first: "Shortening" or "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" will reveal their presence.

For more information about trans fats and food labeling, check out these sources:

1) A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, 5th ed., Ruth Winter, MS, Three Rivers Press, New York, 1999.

2) American Heart Association at www.deliciousdecisions.org.

3) The FDA Consumer Magazine published by the FDA and available at the Seattle Central Public Library and on-line

4) http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~sma/qatrans2.html

Georgia Lord Wantanabee may be reached by sending e-mail to editor@sdistrictjournal.com.

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