October 1, 2007

Trans fat -- Lying Labels!

On my last trip to the grocery store, I spent some time examining labels to see how manufacturers have dealt with the requirement to report trans fat on the labels.

The news is not good. As far as I can tell, most commercial baked goods and many other products still list hydrogenated fats and oils early in the list of ingredients, which means there is a significant amount of trans fat in the product no matter what the labels say.

In most products--with a few exceptions--the hydrogenated fats they used to contain have not been replaced with other kinds of fats and oils. Even so, just about every product you pick up that lists hydrogenated fats and oils in the ingredients also provides a nutrition panel that claims there is 0 trans fat in the product.

How can this be? There are several explanations.

  1. Manufacturers are allowed to round down, so they may have .5 grams of trans fat in a serving and report it as 0.

  2. Manufacturers use unrealistically low portion sizes. If you weigh out a portion of many common foods you'll find that the portion you would have served yourself is often a lot more than what is used as a portion on the label. This magnifies the impact of that rounding as your true life portion that is three times as high as the label portion may have 1.5 grams of unreported trans fat.

  3. Labels lie. No, this is not me being paranoid. Over the decades I've been following nutrition news several newspapers have paid to have labs analyze commercial prepared foods and compare the lab results with the actual contents of the package.

    In the early 1990s, the Hartford Courant analyzed ice cream and found that the calories listed on labels bore no relationship to the truth and that there were often 50 calories or more in a serving. To make it worse, the portion size for ice cream is unrealistically low. Try measuring a serving by weight (not volume, which is deceptive) and you'll see what I mean. As a result the typical scoop of ice cream serving was found to have at least 100 calories more than what the labels would suggest.

    More recently, in the late 90s, a Florida newspaper analyzed low carb foods and found that they almost all contained many more grams of carbohydrate than were reported on the labels.

There is No Enforcement of Truth in Labeling and No Real Punishment for Companies That Lie on Labels

It's a lot easier to remove the trans fats from a label than from the food itself.

The underfunded, understaffed FDA can't even keep up with the poisoned foods entering our food supply, so you can be sure it is not putting any resources into testing tens of thousands of packaged food items to see if the nutritional information on the package matches what is inside.

Even more to the point, in the very few cases where a company has been found to be lying on labels--by others, not the FDA--the punishment is a joke. The Atkins Nutritionals company, for example, was forced to settle with consumers who bought its mislabeled bars. But in order to file a claim the consumer had to have proof of purchase (of a bar bought months before!) and if they did, the settlement merely sent them coupons to be used for buying more product from the company!

Why Should You Care?

Remember all the hoopla about how dangerous saturated fats were? Well, it turns out many of the early studies that looked at the relationship of saturated fats and heart disease did not separate out trans fats from saturated fats. And it turns out that it is trans fats that are the really damaging fats that clog up arteries. They raise LDL, lower HDL, and also raise triglycerides.

For people with diabetes the stakes are even higher since those without normal blood sugars are more at risk for heart disease already, as high blood sugars also raise LDL, lower HDL, and raise trigycerides. So for anyone with diabetes of any kind avoiding trans fat should be a priority.

How Can You Protect Yourself Against Lying Labels?

Read the ingredients, not the nutritional panel.

If you see the word "hydrogenated", assume that the product contains more trans fat than the label discloses and far more than is healthy for your body.

One legal trick companies resort to is to list fats like this: "sunflower oil, soybean oil, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil." This means that the company can use any one of the listed ingredients. In practice it means that they are using the cheapest (usually the hydrogenated oils) but listing ingredients in this way suggests to the consumer that the product contains the better quality oils listed first.

Don't be fooled. There is no amount of trans fat that is good for you. All of it is bad and you should let manufacturers know you care by avoiding buying any products that contain them.


Anna said...

Bravo! I also highly recommend for anyone who deals with diabetes in their life (or is just interested in how some really bad science became part of the current health mess), Gary Taubes' new book, Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease.

The complete story of the history, cultural movements, commericial exploitation, and unsupportive science behind the saturated fat/heart disease has never been explained this well to the American public (though Taubes is not the first to realize that public health policy and commercial exploitation of the low fat theory ran well ahead of the scientific evidence).

Jenny said...


That's a good point. Unfortunately, it doesn't help people with normal or near normal blood sugars who will also suffer damage to their arteries from eating foods with trans fats in them!