All packaged foodstuffs sold in the US will have to carry labels informing consumers of the trans fat content following the introduction of new regulations designed to help combat the rising tide of obesity.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced yesterday that it would require all products containing trans fatty acids to be labelled as such from January 2006 in order to enable consumers to be aware of what they are eating. Recent scientific evidence suggests that consumption of trans fat raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels that increase the risk of coronary heart disease.
Trans fatty acids are found naturally in all animal-derived fats, and are present in a wide range of products from meat and milk to biscuits and snacks. They are produced when manufacturers use hydrogenation, a process in which hydrogen is added to vegetable oil in order to turn the oil into a more solid fat.
"Trans fats are bad fats. The less trans fat you and I eat, the healthier we will be," said Tommy Thompson, Health and Human Services Secretary, adding that more legislation concerning the labelling of foodstuffs, in particular their nutritional content, was being planned.
The trans fat listing will be situated just below information about saturated fats - also linked to increased cholesterol levels - on food labels.
Most food manufacturers welcomed the move, while the Grocery Manufacturers of America said many food companies would likely begin labelling trans fat long before the 2006 deadline.
"GMA fully supports quantitative labelling of trans fat," said GMA director of scientific and nutrition policy Alison Kretser. "This will give consumers clear and concise information about the content of trans fat in their foods. Trans fat labelling will allow consumers to make informed choices about which products to purchase based on their own preferences and health needs."
The National Food Processors Association (NFPA) also gave its support to the labelling requirement, although it stressed the importance of further education about the positive role some fats can play in the human diet.
"The effective date of 2006 will enable food companies to undertake the substantial process of redesigning and re-labelling their products within a workable timeframe," said Dr Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president and chief science officer at the NFPA.
She added: "All fats can be part of a healthful diet. The key with fat - as with the overall diet, in general - is ensuring that consumers follow science-based dietary guidance, as well as following the overarching tenet of balance, variety, and moderation. NFPA recommends that consumers not focus solely on one particular type of fat, but rather continue to reduce their fat intake in total."
Individual companies were also quick to reassure consumers that they would remove - or in some cases, had already removed - trans-fats from their products, or at least make it clear on the label.
PepsiCo said that it was one of the first companies to voluntarily label trans-fat in its Frito-Lay chips, and that it was already moving towards eliminating trans-fats entirely from its range of products. A switch to corn oil for its Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos snacks meant that these brands were already trans-fat free, the company said.
Unilever Bestfoods, meanwhile, said that it would make its top-selling I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! spread trans-fat-free by early next year, and that it too had already begun to reduce trans-fat content in a number of other products.
The National Association of Margarine Manufacturers (NAMM), which has been pushing for trans-fat labelling for some time in order to dispel the myth (as it sees it) that margarine is high in 'dangerous' fats, was also happy. NAMM president Richard Cristol said that the margarine industry had responded in recent years to consumer interest in lowering daily fat consumption levels by decreasing the average fat content of its products by 40 per cent.
But not everyone was entirely content with the new regulations. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the fiercest proponents of trans fat labelling, said that the move would prompt food manufacturers to reformulate their products and reduce the content of the "dangerous" fat.
But it added that more education was needed to ensure that consumers were able to correctly interpret the labelling information.
"The new labels will let consumers compare trans-fat content from product to product, and that will be a great step forward," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan. "It will be hard, though, for people to tell if a given number of grams of trans fat is a lot or a little. Five grams may not seem like a lot, but it is."
She suggested that obliging manufacturers to place the amount of trans-fat into the context of a day's diet would be a more transparent way of labelling. The CSPI had urged the FDA to use the existing Daily Value for saturated fat - 20 grams per day - as the new combined DV for saturated plus trans-fat, Wootan said.
The labelling requirement comes at a time of heightened interest in the healthiness of food products. Just last week, Kraft Foods announced that it was to reduce the fat content of a number of its popular brands, while both Nestlé and Cadbury Schweppes have been highlighted as potential targets for campaigners against 'unhealthy' confectionery products.