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FDA requires trans-fat labelling

22nd October, 2003

The American Food and Drug Administration has told food companies that from January 2006 they must declare on the label the amount of trans-fat in their products. But UK consumers will still be denied this information.

CheeriosNo cheers here. Most cereals don't have added fat, but Nestlé puts nearly 3% hydrogenated vegetable fat in every bowlful of Cheerios.

Following nearly a decade of campaigning and petitioning by our American cousins at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and following a recent legal case brought against Kraft Foods for failing to warn purchasers of Oreo biscuits of the trans-fat content, the US becomes the first country in the world to bring in a new labelling rule requiring declaration of the trans-fat in foods.

Trans-fats are found naturally in some dairy and animal products but are also created when vegetable or marine oils are hydrogenated, a process which solidifies the oil and reduces its liability to become rancid, extending its shelf life.

Hydrogenated oils are produced in block or pellet form, and are waxy to touch but combine with flour to make products such as biscuits and pastries that can stay fresh-tasting for months. Hydrogenated oils are also popular with fast food sellers for deep-fat frying.

A series of reports from the US Institute of Medicine, the US National Academy of Sciences and other expert committees have upheld the view that trans-fats should be considered as risky as saturated fats in their propensity to raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

mcvitiesIndigestive biscuits? Around 80 grams of 'partially hydrogenated vegetable oil' in this pack of biscuits - but exactly how much of that is trans-fat?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the American government's food legislation body, estimates that the new regulation will cost industry a one-off figure of $140-$250 million for analysis, labelling and reformulation. Against this the FDA estimates that labelling could prevent 600-1,200 heart attacks annually, saving 250-500 lives, with an annual saving of $0.9-$1.8 billion in medical costs, lost productivity and pain and suffering.

Although a welcome move to provide more consumer information, the new rules will not require declarations of less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat in a serving, and there is no change to the exemption for certain foods - notably fast food, restaurant meals, and food sold loose - from bearing any nutrition labelling.

This is a major loophole, as US food composition tables show the largest quantities of trans-fats are found in portions of deep-fried potatoes and doughnuts, neither of which need to bear nutrition labels.

...And in the UK?

UK consumption of trans-fats is a shade lower than that in the US. Average daily intake in the UK was 4g (women) and 5.6g (men) in the late 1980s compared with an average of 5.8g for American adults in the 1990s. UK data for 2001 suggest there has been a fall in trans-fat consumption as manufacturers have started to find alternative ingredients.

twixNo cheers here. Most cereals don't have added fat, but Nestlé puts nearly 3% hydrogenated vegetable fat in every bowlful of Cheerios.

The UK's Food Standard Agency says bluntly 'Trans-fats have no known nutritional benefits and because of the effect they have on blood cholesterol, they increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Evidence suggests the effects of trans-fats are worse than saturated fats.'

The UK Food Standards Agency gives little help on how to avoid eating trans-fats, except to note that the ingredients list should mention 'hydrogenated vegetable fat' (or oil) or 'partially hydrogenated vegetable fat'. But in the UK, like the USA, there are no labels or ingredients lists put on deep-fried fast foods, canteen pastry-based foods or loose-sold cakes, pies and doughnuts, yet these are likely to be major sources of trans-fats in the diet.

Labelling trans-fat - if such labelling ever arrives in Europe - would be only part of the answer. From a public-health perspective, the sooner industry ceases to use these artificial fats the sooner our health will improve.

Although no figures have been estimated for UK heart disease caused by trans-fats, one Dutch study has suggested that elimination of most of the hydrogenated oils from the food supply would cut deaths from heart disease by over 20%.

In the UK that could prevent over 12,000 premature deaths a year just by removing this one ingredient from our diets.

US portions of trans-fat
Trans-fat in a portion
Trans-fat as % total fat
French fries
Potato chips (crisps)
Cream biscuits
Cooking fat
Hard margarine
Soft margarine
Source: FDA website


Source: FDA website

Useful resources
News release from Center for Science in the Public Interest.
FDA press release on trans-fats and food labelling.