Nutrition facts labels in the US have, since 1 January 2006, been required by the US Food and Drug Administration to state the content of trans fats.
While this has been widely reported in newspapers throughout the world, another similar — but more stringent – requirement went largely unreported.
In December 2005, Health Canada, the Canadian Ministry of Health, also required the content of trans fats to be stated on food labels.
Both countries have introduced similar legislation on trans fat labeling, and they are so far the only two countries in the world to have done so.
Some countries are considering similar legislation, but Singapore is among those that have adamantly refused to introduce mandatory trans fat labeling – saying that it is not necessary because trans fats are “a small problem” and even giving the excuse that trans fat labeling would amount to trade protectionism!
Anti trans fat campaigners have generally welcomed the new trans fat labeling requirements.
However, there are some important points that consumers have to watch out for:
Zero trans fat
Between the US and Canadian legislation, there is one important difference – in the definition of “zero trans fat”!
Under FDA regulations, “if the serving contains less than 0.5 gram (of trans fat), the content, when declared, shall be expressed as zero.”
Canadian legislation is more stringent on this, and allows the trans fat content to be stated as zero only when it is less than 0.2 grams per serving.
Note also the word SHALL. The US law does not say that if a food product contains less than 0.5 grams trans fat, that amount MAY be expressed as zero on the nutrition facts labels. It says SHALL, meaning MUST!
Thus, when foods contain as much as 0.4 grams trans fat – in fact, as much as 0.499 grams of trans fats – they shall / must be shown in US nutrition facts labels as having zero trans fats.
If you eat, say, five servings of such foods a day, you may end up consuming more than 2 grams of trans fats. Even though 2 grams may not sound like a lot, it is enough to significantly increase your risks of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other degenerative diseases.
Worse of all, you may not even realize that you have put yourself at risk. Because, according to US nutrition facts labels, you have consumed zero trans fats.
Canadian legislation is more strict on this. Unfortunately, US nutrition facts labels are more prevalent and more influential.
For example, a country like Singapore imports a fair amount of foods from the US, but very little from Canada. Many countries, including Singapore, also produce food for export to the US market. These foods will all carry the US nutrition facts labels.
Check the ingredients list
So apart from nutrition facts labels, it is also important to check the ingredients lists.
If the lists include words like “shortening” or “partially hydrogenated” it means that the products contain trans fats.
Actually, it is a bit more complicated than that. Nowadays, some types of vegetable shortening also claim to be trans fat free – but whether that means they really contain zero trans fat, or less than 0.5 grams per serving, is not clear.
Recently, I wrote to the press pointing out that a certain brand of “butter crackers” was, according to the ingredients list, not made with butter but made with vegetable shortening containing trans fats.
The manufacturer responded saying:
- the product does contain butter, listed on the ingredients list as “milk fat”
- the vegetable shortening used is a new type that contains no trans fat
- the nutrition facts label states the content of trans fat as 0 g.
Was I assured? Not entirely.
I checked the ingredients list again and saw that milk fat was indeed listed – but quite far down the list after vegetable shortening. It was, in fact, the second last ingredient on the list, meaning it was a very minor ingredient.
As for the vegetable shortening and the crackers containing zero trans fat, I am still not sure whether it is really zero or merely less than 0.5 grams per serving.
Watch the serving size
Another thing to be aware of when checking for trans fats on food labels is the serving size.
In order to make their products appear good – meaning having little trans fats – some manufacturers have simply reduced their serving size.
For example, a brand of cookies may previously define a serving as consisting of five cookies. Now, the serving size is reduced to 2 or 3 cookies. Immediately, without the manufacturer having to change any ingredient, it becomes a low / zero trans fat product!
Many brands of margarine, for example, state the serving size as 1 tsp. This is very little margarine, barely enough to spread on one slice of bread. If you eat two or more slices of bread spread with margarine, chances are that you will be taking 4 or 5 or more servings of margarine.
Percentage daily value?
The new trans fat labeling has a blank in one column of the nutrition facts labels – where it says “% Daily Value”.
Originally, the FDA proposed to put an asterisk in the % Daily Value column, with a note that “intake of trans fats should be as low as possible.”
However, this little piece of advice or warning was dropped in the end due to food industry pressure,
Thus, nutrition facts labels tell you that you should eat no more than 20 to 25 grams of saturated fat each day. But there is no indication of the daily intake limit for trans fat?
This seems to imply that there is no limit and you can eat as much trans fat as you want!
The truth is, of course, just the opposite. You should eat as little trans fat as possible.
Usefulness of trans fat labeling
So how useful is it to list trans fat on nutrition facts labels?
After all, the majority of consumers do not read nutrition facts labels. Some cannot even read. And those who read may not fully understand what the numbers mean and what their significance is.
But these labels do serve a purpose. Even if just a small minority of consumers read them, food manufacturers want to look good in their eyes.
Some might try to “cheat” by adjusting the serving sizes, others might benefit from declaring small amounts of trans fats as “zero”.
But there is a limit to how much food manufacturers can cheat or hide. Eventually, they have to clean up their act and reduce, if not remove, trans fats from their products.
Alternative to trans fat labeling
Of course, there is an alternative to trans fat labeling…
Just ban trans fats, as Denmark has done. Then all those issues about nutrition facts labels being misleading, or them not being read by consumers, become no longer relevant.
Consider what Dr. Steen Stender, the head of the Danish Nutrition Council, has to say: “As they say in North America: ‘You can put poison in food, if you label it properly.’ Here in Denmark, we remove the poison and people don’t have to know anything about trans fatty acids.”