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Are changes on Nutrition Facts panel for better?

Published June 30. 2012 09:01AM

Before you get too comfortable, get up and grab a cereal box from the cupboard. Any cereal box will do. They are all required by law to display our topic of discussion: a Nutrition Facts panel.

In 1992, as an addition to the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, the FDA mandated that all food packages needed to display certain information in panel form, such as serving size; package size; grams per serving size of the macronutrients, protein, fat, and carbohydrates; milligrams per serving size of many micronutrients, primarily key vitamins and minerals; and the Percent Daily Values of both the macro- and micronutrients.

The only change since 1992 has been the addition of Trans Fat under Total Fat, a change adopted in 2003 in response to an onslaught of studies that found even relatively small amounts of this manmade fat used primarily to increase shelf life of packaged foods adversely affected health. A review of four such studies previously cited in a 2006 "Fitness Master" article, for instance, found that an increase of just 2 percent in trans fat increased the risk of heart disease by 23 percent.

But the additional Trans Fat listing, like some of the information mandated in 1992 by the FDA, really doesn't help you, the consumer.

Why? Because the processed food lobby is leviathan.

When the lobby realized no amount of pressure or politicking could keep trans fat from being added to labels, they fought for and won the next best thing: that trans fat be listed like the other macronutrients. In other words, decimals do not have to be used in the grams-per-serving listing, and most importantly amounts of less than half a gram can be listed as zero.

This final concession makes the listing of trans fat virtually meaningless. Because of it, it's theoretically possible for an item like nondairy coffee creamer to be as high as 40 percent trans fat by calories yet show zero grams of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts panel.

How can this be so? Let's say the listed serving size, one tablespoon, of the nondairy coffee creamer has 10 calories. If 40 percent of that is trans fat, that equals .44 grams just less than the .5 grams per serving that would require the manufacturer to round up and list it as 1 gram.

So what can legally be printed on the label is a big fat zero, which makes it rather difficult for you to track your daily trans fat ingestion. To do so you need to read all the product's ingredients listed at the very bottom of the Nutrition Facts panel in much smaller print, know all the acceptable ways trans fat can be listed, and make an estimation.

Yet don't ever expect to see trans fat listed as trans fat. Partially hydrogenated oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, or partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil are three of the typical aliases.

While all the lingo is perfectly legal, it's also potentially lethal. As soon as you consume two .4 gram servings of trans fat servings that can be legally listed as zero you exceed the American Heart Association's guideline for a safe daily amount of trans fat, increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease. At the time the labeling of trans fat was being debated, for instance, a doctor at Harvard estimated trans fat consumption caused of two out of every nine heart attacks.

So if the addition of trans fat was the last big improvement to the Nutrition Facts panel, shouldn't you be skeptical about the next round of changes? Sure, but early intimations of what will change are promising.

There's talk of making serving sizes more realistic, which would be a big win for consumers and a terrible loss for lobbyists. At present, 20-ounce bottles of soda, like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, which are typically consumed at one sitting, can list the serving size as 8 ounces. That way, the respective calories listed are 100 and 97 instead of 250 and 242.

Even zero-calorie water beverages use the serving-size ploy to confuse consumers. Propel Zero contains vitamins but no calories, so it may seem foolish for the label to list the serving size as 8 ounces instead of the 16.9 in the bottle.

After all, by doing this the Percent Daily Values of the added vitamins gets reduced by slightly more than half but so does the sodium content. Surprisingly, one bottle of the grape flavor contains 169 mg of sodium, which is more than all but two single servings of the many versions of Pringles potato chips, though a 1-ounce serving of potato chips, the industry standard, is also artificially low.

Other hinted at additions that would help the consumer and possibly hurt the food producers include the listing of total whole grains and a removal of the Daily Values since they are based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, a figure that's purely arbitrary.

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