New regulation is important step in right direction, says CSPI

WASHINGTON—Nearly ten years after the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) first asked it to do so, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today announced a final rule requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat on Nutrition Facts labels. CSPI praised the agency for finally acting and said the move will spur companies to reformulate products and to let consumers know how much of this dangerous and heretofore hidden fat is in packaged foods.

While the rule will require labels to list grams of trans fat, the rule is weaker than the proposal issued by the FDA in 1999. For instance, the new labels will not place the amount of trans fat into the context of a day’s diet. 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. That way, says CSPI, consumers could look to one Daily Value for both heart-disease promoting fats. Canada requires food manufacturers to treat trans fat in that way.

In another retreat from its 1999 proposal, the FDA will allow food manufacturers to use claims like “low in saturated fat” on labels for products that have a lot of trans fat.

“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.”

While small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in meat and dairy foods, most comes from the partially hydrogenated oils used to make French fries, crackers, margarine, cookies, pastries, and other processed foods. Food manufacturers use hydrogen to turn liquid vegetable oil into semi-solid shortening. Last year, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that trans fat is about as harmful as saturated fat.

“I hope that food manufacturers begin reformulating their products to reduce levels of trans fat and saturated fat in foods,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “And although this rule does not apply to restaurants, the frying oil used by many chains is a major source of trans fat. Restaurants should switch to healthier frying oils to help lower the nation’s rates of heart disease.”

A few companies, like Frito Lay and Lipton, have already taken steps to eliminate trans fat in some products. But McDonald’s, which last September announced with great fanfare its proposal to reduce saturated and trans fat in its fried foods, quietly reneged on its pledge earlier this year.