October 21, 2008

A Nutrition Minute: The Myth of Zero Transfats

by Sharon Gruber, Nutrition Consultant.

Transfats have no health benefits. It is estimated that transfat consumption is responsible for between 30,000 and 100,000 deaths annually in the United States – related to heart disease alone. They also are implicated in diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, infertility, and certain cancers. Yet even health-minded consumers are confused about transfats. A recent study reveals that shoppers looking for nutrition information don’t know how to read the nutrition facts label because they don’t have an understanding of what is an acceptable amount of transfats.

Adding to the confusion is the governmental guideline that less than half a gram of tansfats per serving can be rounded down to zero, allowing the food packaging to carry the claim, “zero grams of transfats per serving.” It makes no sense to a more motivated consumer, who might have learned that transfats are the same as partially hydrogenated oils, which are clearly listed as ingredients. The food manufacturers often determine serving size specifically so that food seems healthier and so that transfats can be rounded down to meet the standard for “zero grams of transfats per serving.” If a consumer eats more than one serving of the food, which is often what happens, this zero grams per serving quickly adds up to multiple grams per actual serving.

Even the USDA is not immune to the transfat issue. The food program at Bread for the City is fortunate to be a recipient of USDA food staples. These items are often the healthiest of the items in the food bags that we distribute to hundreds of DC households each day. However, the USDA-provided peanut butter we recently received lists partially hydrogenated oils as an ingredient; yet the nutrition facts label lists transfats per serving as zero. Confusing indeed.

It is an unfortunate situation that I now am teaching people that a package that promotes its contents as having “zero transfats per serving” is actually waving a bright red flag that the item has transfats but is actually a case of the round-down, marketing approach to nutrition labeling. And the USDA knows better. We should all be straightforward about what is in our food and not allow nutrition “facts” labels to be another place for food companies to market to us.

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