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Tracking Trans Fat

Tracking Trans FatThe FDA recently announced that trans fat content must be included on food labels – a move which, according to Tufts expert Alice Lichtenstein, will alter both consumer habits and the foodindustry. Boston.

Boston [07.11.03] The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently announced plans to require trans fat content to be listed on nutrition labels by 2006. According to Tufts nutritionist Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., the move has been "eagerly anticipated" for years by health experts, who caution that diets high in trans fat can increase risk of heart disease. But while the new labeling will likely spawn positive changes in both consumer habits and the food industry, Lichtenstein warns that limiting trans fat is only one part of a healthy diet.

"Trans fats are scattered all over our food supply," said Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at Tufts' Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Found in over 42,000 food products, the average American consumes close to five grams of the substance a day - while evidence suggests even one gram is too much for a healthy diet.

The Tufts expert told USA Today that trans fat is particularly unhealthy because it raises bad (LDL) cholesterol but doesn't raise good (HDL) cholesterol. Saturated fat, on the other hand, raises both bad and good cholesterol.

"Lichtenstein, who served on the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine panel [that called for labels to include trans fat], said consumers should look at both saturated fat and trans fat," reported Cox News. "Together, they should provide less than 10 percent of daily calories - about 20 grams of fat."

The FDA estimates that reduction of trans fat in American diets due to the labeling changes will save between $900 million and $1.8 billion each year in medical costs, lost productivity, and pain and suffering.

Lichtenstein predicts that much of the reduction of trans fat will come from changes in the food industry, which will be held accountable for unhealthy levels of the substance for the first time.
"Because the manufacturers now have to label trans fatty acids if may cause them to change their formulation," Lichtenstein told The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. "It was sort of advantageous to have foods low in saturated fat and high in trans fat because they had to label saturated and not trans. It was sort of a loophole, and now that's going to be eliminated."

Lichtenstein - who is also vice-chairperson of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee - said that it is unknown how consumers will react to the new labeling, but was optimistic about the FDA's efforts.

"Consumers are bombarded with health claims everywhere they go - in the grocery stores and in the media," Lichtenstein said in a statement on behalf of the American Heart Association. "It is often confusing, if not impossible, to figure out which claims have merit. This FDA guidance will help consumers sift through the noise by providing useful information that will allow them to make food choices that could help prevent heart disease, stroke and other chronic illnesses."

But the Tufts expert said she is also concerned that the new focus on trans fat may cause consumers to overemphasize its significance.

"Trans fats are important," Lichtenstein told Cox News. "But we're still consuming too much saturated fat and we're still consuming too many calories. This is one small component."

As she told the Associated Press, "My concern is that there is so much emphasis on trans, which is new and sexy. Then we're losing the larger picture."

Overall, however, Lichtenstein said that the FDA's ruling is an important step to improving the nutrition of Americans - 60 percent of whom are overweight or obese.

"Rising obesity rates in this country have really drawn attention to the role food manufacturers play in helping consumers make better nutritional choices," said Lichtenstein. "We hope these new guidelines serve as an incentive for manufacturers to provide more scientifically accurate information and, hopefully, healthier products, so Americans have the tools they need to make better decisions about the foods they eat."

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