Trans Fat Labels Lie To You, And The FDA Lets It Happen

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 3: The label on a box of Hostess Brownie Bites lists 3.5 grams of Trans Fat January 3, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. New Regulations from the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees most food labels, requires food manufacturers to list Trans Fats on products with 0.5 grams or more of Trans Fat. Trans Fat in food increases 'bad' cholesterol and increases the risk of heart disease. (Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Are you relatively health-conscious? If so, it can be kind of dizzying shopping in most American supermarkets — so many options, and so many of them jam-packed with things you'd really rather not be eating. And sometimes, sadly, not even the label on the package is being entirely honest with you. A new study has found that nutritional labels often lie about trans fat levels in a pretty sneaky fashion, claiming that packaged foods contain zero grams per serving when in fact, they could contain nearly half-a-gram per serving. So, how does that make any sense, and why is it happening?

In short, the root of the problem is with the exact nature of the rules for labeling trans fats that the FDA embraced back in 2003, and were put into effect in 2008. Basically, the FDA decided — on the strength of early research suggesting that trans fats are some of the worst for your heart, arteries, and liver functions — that trans fats would have to go on the nutritional facts label, right alongside saturated fats.

However, they left a gaping loophole in the new regulation — if an item contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, it's labeled as containing zero grams. 

Furthermore, this is dependent on the product's serving size. While you could tear through a whole bag of potato chips over the course of a bad day, if that bag is listed at four servings, you could theoretically be getting about 1.5 grams of trans fats, blissfully unaware the entire time. Writing in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, the authors of the study state the problem clearly.

This labeling is cause for concern because consumers, seeing the 0 g trans fat on the nutrition facts label, are probably unaware that they are consuming trans fat.

What To Do About It

Here's how you can do the work for yourself — the work which the FDA, frankly, has failed to do. 

If you pick up a product and glance at it's nutritional facts, and it says "trans fats 0g," there's one more step to take. Look through the list of ingredients. If you see the words "partially hydrogenated oil," then they're trying to sucker you. There is trans fat in there, and depending on how many servings are packaged together, it could add up to quite a lot. 

For example, even the Girl Scouts of America are in on the act! Those delicious, limited-time cookies? Yup, trans fat, at no greater than 0.5 grams per serving. But a full serving of Thin Mints, for example, is just four cookies. Which means a full box, listed at seven servings, could potentially contain up to 3.5 grams — a hell of a lot more than zero.

On a personal note, this is something I was lucky enough to catch wise to early on. Obesity and heart issues aren't uncommon for men in my mother's side of our family, at least, so I've long tried to be proactive about cutting out the trans fats, which multiple studies have linked strongly to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes

As such, I find the FDA's decision-making on this pretty upsetting — it's important to give people the tools to make healthy choices, and this number-fudging trans fat labeling has surely tricked people into thinking they're taking better care of themselves than they are.

The study found that trans fats were especially prevalent, as you might expect, in pre-packaged potato chips and cookies — nearly half of all potato chips had sneakily-labeled trans fats, while about 35 percent of cookies did, as CBS News details.

Images: bandita/Flickr

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