What's Wrong with Trans Fat Labels?
Products with partially hydrogenated oils can claim 0% trans fats!

The law is better than nothing--but a food product can still contain up to 2.2 grams of trans fat in it's "standard serving", and yet claim zero percent (0 %) trans fats. The labeling system is just too weak to keep partially hydrogenated oils (and the trans fats they contain) out of the American diet.
[1100 words]

Eric Armstrong


The food industry clearly has too much power in Washington. It took 10 years before the FDA finally got the industry to list trans fats on food labels. That law takes effect in 2006. In the meantime, millions of people have suffered obesity, disease, and death, even though the science has been known for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, the labeling law is too weak--which reflects the weakness of the FDA.

It's not the FDA's fault, course. The FDA is staffed with well-meaning people who are trying to do the right thing. But they're understaffed and politically outgunned. The FDA is understaffed because a government which refuses to tax its corporations--or even to pursue and collect taxes it is rightfully owed--is financially starving itself. In the process, it is starving the goverment agencies that were established to protect it's citizens. The FDA is politically outgunned because corporate campaign contributions and powerful lobbyists speak with a much louder voice than even clearly documented science.

Since trans fats kill slowly, American corporations haven't gotten in trouble for using them. And since the partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats are profitable, American corporations continue using them. They've been outlawed in Europe and Canada for decades. But those political systems have found ways to balance the needs of corporations with those of workers, consumers, and the environment. Here in America, corporations are king. They run the political system. And our children are paying the price.

We're paying the price, too, of course--in reduced health and increased health care costs. But ingredients like partially hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup weren't part of the food supply in the 1970's. So anyone who grew up before then at least had a decent start on a healthy life. But our children are growing up with this crap in their mouths every moment of their lives. Obesity levels are rising, and doctors are observing that "adult" diseases are occurring in children at an ever earlier age.

This part of the article continues to a discussion of political ramifications in Food Labels, Corporations, and the Media. For additional articles on politics, the economy, the financial markets, and how they relate to health, monitor the "Current Advisories" news feed at CitizensAdvisory.org.

How Food Labels Changed

The change in the food labeling law was supposed to eliminate one of the causes of these problems, by getting trans fats out of the food supply. That law requires manufacturers to list the percentage of trans fats on the label. Unfortunately, the percentage they're showing you isn't what you expect (as you'll see in a moment). As a result, the law is much too weak. A food product can contain up to 2.2 grams of trans fat in every serving, and still show "0%" on the label.

In addition, the FDA didn't succeed in getting the warning label they really wanted:

Warning: Trans fats may be dangerous to your health.

That's the exact same warning that first appeared on cigarettes, and with good reason. Trans fats have exactly the same capacity for long-term metabolic mischief as cigarette smoke. But the only label the FDA could get the food industry to agree to was a much weaker version:

Intake of trans fats should be as low as possible.

If you look closely, you'll see it down there at the bottom of the label. But you have to know to look for it. Otherwise, you'd never notice it.

But the more serious problem is that the law still allows the food product to contain 2.2 grams of trans fat in every serving. To understand how that can be, you need to understand how the food labels work. That's the subject of the next section.

How the Food Labels Work

There's something you need to know about food labels:

The percentages you see on food labels are not percentages of the food, but rather the percentage that the food's "Standard Serving Size" represents in a 2,000 calorie diet.

So manufacturers can play with the standard serving size (making it half a candy bar for example), and anything less than 10 trans fat calories per serving is less than .5% of a 2,000 calorie diet. The law allows a company to claim 0% in that case. So "0% trans fat" does not mean "no trans fat". It means that, at 9 calories per gram, the "standard serving" could still contain slightly more than 1 gram of trans fat (1 gram @ 9 calories per gram = 9 calories).

Since partially hydrogenated oils are 50% trans fat, a "standard serving" could have as much of 2 grams of partially hydrogenated oils, and still claim "0% trans fat". Clearly, that kind of labeling is of no value whatever to the conscientious consumer.

The original goal of the standard serving size labeling system was intended to keep products like butter from sounding bad. If they said "100% fat", they would have sounded really bad, when in reality a pat or two is a small percentage of a normal diet. So they came up with the "standard serving size" system.

The whole system is based on the silly assumption that you have to worry about the percentages of fats, proteins, and carbs in your diet, instead of simply eating healthy foods and letting your taste buds be your guide.

That system derived from "nutrition experts" who were trained in medical schools that were oblivious to the junk that food producers are pumping into the food supply. They noticed that thin people ate less fat, so they assumed that's what kept them thin.

What they didn't realize was that eating less fat meant that people ate at home more, ate more fruits and vegetables, and generally ate healthier, which kept them from screwing up their metabolism, so they were able to burn any and all fat they did consume.

The "nutritional experts" who approved the plan were essentially ignorant of the metabolic effects of bad foods, having been educated in medical training institutions funded by drug companies, so they worried about dietary percentages instead of investigating the real problems.

In effect, they've come up with a pre-Copernican theory of the universe, with the sun revolving around the earth. The theory works, after a fashion. But there are much simpler and more effective ways to organize the available information.


Copyright © 2004 by Eric Armstrong. All rights reserved.
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