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Trans-fat labels may be misleading reports new study

For the study, the investigators estimated the prevalence of industrial trans-fats in the packaged food supply
For the study, the investigators estimated the prevalence of industrial trans-fats in the packaged food supply
Robin Wulffson, MD

A study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on August 28 reported that dangerous levels of trans-fats may be present in foods that claim to have none. The consumption of trans-fats is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has tentatively determined that partially hydrogenated oils, the main dietary source of industrial trans-fat, are not “generally recognized as safe” (GRA for consumption. Thus, many health conscious individuals avoid them in their diet. However, if a food product is mislabeled, these substances may be consumed.

The study authors note that evidence exists that consumption of trans-fats has declined in the United States; however, limited documentation exists regarding current levels of industrial trans-fats in foods. Therefore, they estimated the prevalence of partially hydrogenated oils in 4,340 top-selling US packaged foods. They found that 9% of products in the sample contained partially hydrogenated oils; however, 84% of these products listed “0 grams” of trans-fat per serving. They noted that this could potentially result in consumers underestimating their trans-fat intake.

The investigators claimed that government efforts to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils from packaged foods would significantly reduce exposure to this known cardiovascular disease risk factor. Currently, the FDA is considering public comments on this determination. If the agency finalizes the proposed change, products containing partially hydrogenated oils will not be allowed as ingredients in either packaged or restaurant food unless the FDA makes a determination that they are safe. The authors explained that their new study estimates the prevalence of partially hydrogenated oils in US packaged foods to more fully understand the implications of the proposed restriction of partially hydrogenated oils.

For the study, the investigators estimated the prevalence of industrial trans-fats in the packaged food supply; they used a cross-sectional database of brand-name products developed for the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI) in 2012. The organization’s database includes products in 61 commonly consumed food categories including baked goods, frozen foods, and snacks. These products are among the top contributors of dietary trans-fats. The NSRI database comprises all products in the top 80% of sales for 61 food categories in 2011, marking a total of 8,024 products. Some foods contain naturally occurring trans-fat derived from small amounts in the byproducts of ruminant animals (i.e., cattle, sheep, and goats); however, most dietary trans-fat comes from partially hydrogenated oils.

Manufacturers are permitted to label products containing between 0 and 0.5 g of trans-fat per serving as “0 grams” in the US; therefore, the investigators identified products that contained partially hydrogenated oils by the presence of the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. Trans-fat label data and ingredient information were available for 4,340 products, which comprised the sample for this analysis. The number of products with partially hydrogenated oils and average trans-fat per serving were calculated; however serving size was not standardized.

The investigators found that, among 4,340 products with trans-fat label and ingredient data, 391 (9%) listed partially hydrogenated oils in their ingredient information. Of those, 61 products (16%) reported trans-fat content per serving in excess of 0 grams or 0.5 grams or more per serving (average: 1.66 grams). Among the remainder of products with partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient information, 330 products (84%), listed trans-fat as 0 grams per serving on the Nutrition Facts label. The researchers found that the amount of trans-fat in these products could vary from trace amounts to almost 0.5 gram of trans-fat per serving.

Among food categories with at least one product containing partially hydrogenated oils 35 categories, 3,286 products), an average of 15% of products per category contain partially hydrogenated oils, ranging from 0.4% in bacon to 66% in seasoned processed potatoes. The sales for these products totaled $3.5 billion in 2011.

The authors concluded that the elimination of trans-fats from US foods is possible; however, removal has not been achieved via labeling requirements for packaged food: almost 1 in 10 products that were examined contained partially hydrogenated oils. Restricting the use of partially hydrogenated oils in packaged food would benefit consumers preparing foods at home; in addition, an FDA ruling would help ensure that restaurant customers are protected from unknowingly consuming industrial trans-fat. They noted that some local governments have restricted the use of partially hydrogenated oils in food service establishments, but most Americans live in areas where no such regulation exists. The authors explained that scientific evidence supports the fact that even low levels of trans fat intake pose a risk to consumers. They stressed that, because of the FDA’s current labeling requirements, individuals continue to unknowingly consume partially hydrogenated oils.

The American Heart Association Web site provides a summary of the health impact of trans-fats and how to avoid them in your diet.

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