All packaged foodstuffs sold in the US will have to carry labels informing consumers of the trans-fat content following the introduction of new regulations designed to help combat the rising tide of obesity.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced yesterday that it would require all products containing trans-fatty acids (thought to be a major cause of health problems, including heart disease and raised cholesterol levels) to be labelled as such from January 2006 in order to enable consumers to be aware of what they are eating.
Trans-fatty acids are found naturally in all animal-derived fats, and are found in a wide range of products from meat and milk to biscuits and snacks.
The worsening health of the nation prompted the US authorities to finally take action to educate consumers about their fat intake. "Trans-fats are bad fats. The less trans-fat you and I eat, the healthier we will be," said Tommy Thompson, Health and Human Services Secretary, adding that more legislation concerning the labelling of foodstuffs, in particular their nutritional content, was being planned.
Food labels in the US already carry information about saturated fats - also linked to increased cholesterol levels - this will be the first time producers will be obliged to label the trans-fat content as well.
Surprisingly, given the likely administrative burden and cost involved, most food manufacturers welcomed the move, realising perhaps that consumer demand for ever healthier food was inevitably leading to such a conclusion.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America organisation, which represents many food producers in the US, said it applauded the FDA's move and said it expected many food companies to begin labelling trans-fat long before the 2006 deadline.
"GMA fully supports quantitative labelling of trans-fat," said GMA director of scientific and nutrition policy Alison Kretser. "This will give consumers clear and concise information about the content of trans-fat in their foods. Trans-fat labelling will allow consumers to make informed choices about which products to purchase based on their own preferences and health needs."
She continued: "GMA and its member companies will continue to work with FDA to make sure consumers have the best information about trans-fats and its role in our diets as quickly as possible."
The National Food Processors Association (NFPA) also gave its support to the labelling requirement, although it stressed the importance of further education about the positive role some fats can play in the human diet.
"The effective date of 2006 will enable food companies to undertake the substantial process of redesigning and re-labelling their products within a workable timeframe," said Dr Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president and chief science officer at the NFPA.
"All fats can be part of a healthful diet. The key with fat - as with the overall diet, in general - is ensuring that consumers follow science-based dietary guidance, as well as following the overarching tenet of balance, variety, and moderation. Many Americans typically eat diets considered too high in total fat, and health experts continue to urge reductions in dietary fat intake.
"NFPA recommends that consumers not focus solely on one particular type of fat, but rather continue to reduce their fat intake in total. Further, consumers need to ensure that their overall caloric intake stays 'in-check,' together with a 'healthful dose' of physical activity."
Companies push their healthy credentials
Individual companies were also quick to reassure consumers that they would remove - or in some cases, had already removed - trans-fats from their products, or at least make it clear on the label.
PepsiCo said that it was one of the first companies to voluntarily label trans-fat in its Frito-Lay chips, and that it was already moving towards eliminating trans-fats entirely from its range of products. A switch to corn oil for its Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos snacks meant that these brands were already trans-fat free, the company said.
Unilever Bestfoods, meanwhile, said that it would make its top-selling I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! spread trans-fat-free by early next year, and that it too had already begun to reduce trans-fat content in a number of other products.
"Unilever Bestfoods recognises that there has been an increase in concern over the potential negative health effects of trans-fat," said David Blanchard head of research and development at Unilever Bestfoods North America.
"Less than one half of one per cent of American adults' total calories comes from the trans-fat present in margarine products," Blanchard claimed. "But for the already health-conscious ICBINB! consumers who want to lower overall intake of these fats, the new formula gives them much more choice and more flexibility in managing their diet."
These sentiments were shared by the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers (NAMM), which has been pushing for trans-fat labelling for some time in order to dispel the myth (as it sees it) that margarine is high in 'dangerous' fats.
NAMM president Richard Cristol said that the margarine industry had responded in recent years to consumer interest in lowering daily fat consumption levels by decreasing the average fat content of its products by 40 per cent.
More work needed
But not everyone was entirely happy with the new regulations. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the fiercest proponents of trans-fat labelling, said that the move would prompt food manufacturers to reformulate their products and reduce the content of the "dangerous" fat.
But it added that more education was needed to ensure that consumers were able to correctly interpret the labelling information.
"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."
She suggested that obliging manufacturers to place the amount of trans-fat into the context of a day's diet would be a more transparent way of labelling. The 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, Wootan said.
The labelling requirement comes at a time of heightened interest in the healthiness of food products. Just last week, Kraft Foods announced that it was to reduce the fat content of a number of its popular brands, while both Nestlé and Cadbury Schweppes have been highlighted as potential targets for campaigners against 'unhealthy' confectionery products.