FDA Changes Food Labeling Requirements to Include Trans Fats

By Melanie R. Margolis

When I picked up a bag of corn chips the other day, I was quite surprised to see that the nutrition label included a listing for trans fats. (I was equally surprised to see that the trans fat content of these chips was zero). We are starting to see some food products with trans fat content listed on the labels. Why do we care? According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), scientific evidence shows that consumption of trans fat raises "bad" cholesterol levels that increase the risk of coronary heart disease. See http://www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/transfat/. Approximately 13 million Americans suffer from coronary heart disease, and more than 500,000 die annually from causes related to coronary heart disease. Id.

On July 9, 2003, FDA issued a regulation which will require food manufacturers to list trans fatty acids, or trans fat, on food labels. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explains trans fats, as follows:

Trans fat occurs in foods when manufacturers use hydrogenation, a process in which hydrogen is added to vegetable oil in order to turn the oil into a more solid fat. Trans fat is often but not always found in the same foods as saturated fat, such as vegetable shortening, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, salad dressings, and other processed foods.
See http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2003pres/20030709.html. Manufacturers are already required to list information revealing overall fat and saturated fat content. The additional information will appear on the nutrition facts panel of foods. The rule, which is intended to enable consumers to make healthier food choices, was published in final FDA regulations in the Federal Register on July 11, 2003. See http://www.fda.gov/OHRMS/DOCKETS/98fr/03-17525.htm. The new information is the first significant change to the nutrition facts panel since it was established in 1993.

Will merely adding trans fat content to labels change anything? FDA expects to see some very tangible results from the labeling change. FDA estimates that by three years after that date, trans fat labeling will have prevented from 600 to 1,200 cases of coronary heart disease and 250 to 500 deaths each year. Also, FDA estimates that the change in labeling will save between $900 million and $1.8 billion each year in medical costs, lost productivity, and pain and suffering. See http://www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/transfat/.

Food manufacturers have until January 1, 2006, to list trans fat on the nutrition label. Of course, manufacturers can begin to implement the change sooner, and as with the corn chips, some have begun. Making the key nutritional information accessible is a great first step. The FDA hopes to improve the nutrition label to provide clearer, up-to-date guidance on a healthy overall diet. Now, the issue becomes how to get more Americans to read and understand the food labels, and then, to elicit a change in engrained American eating habits in response to the nutritional information.