Proposed food label changes for trans fats could reduce heart disease deaths, save money

June 04, 2000

RESTON, Va., June 5, 2000 -- Deaths from heart attacks could be reduced as a result of a government plan to change food labels to reflect the amount of trans fatty acids in processed foods, according to a study presented here today at an American Heart Association dietary conference on fatty acids.

Trans fats are made through the process of hydrogenation that solidifies liquid oils, thereby increasing the shelf life of processed foods containing these oils. Trans fat is found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies and other snack foods.

The researchers expect trans fat intake to change when manufacturers reformulate some products in response to consumer demand for lower trans fat foods as a result of the proposed label changes.

The lead researcher of the study, Kathleen M. Koehler, Ph.D., M.P.H., an epidemiologist at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration office in Washington, D.C., says removing trans fats from all margarine would prevent approximately 6,300 heart attacks including 2,100 deaths a year. Additionally, removing trans fats from 3 percent of breads and cakes and 15 percent of cookies and crackers would prevent an estimated 17,100 heart attacks, including 5,600 deaths, she says.

Research conducted during the past decade shows that trans fats increase heart disease risk by raising blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the harmful type of blood cholesterol. These types of fats may also lower levels of the beneficial form of cholesterol - high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

Removing trans fats from many processed foods is expected to lower Americans' LDL cholesterol levels an average of less than 1 milligram per deciliter (mg/dL) and raise HDL cholesterol levels less than .25 mg/dL. Although these changes seem small on an individual basis, they would have a meaningful impact population-wide, according to Koehler, who is among the dietary experts gathered in Reston, Virginia for the American Heart Association Dietary Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Health meeting.

In November 1999, the Food and Drug Administration proposed that the amount of trans fat in a food product be included in the Nutritional Facts panel. Included in this proposal is a new nutrient content claim defining "trans fat free" and a limit on trans fatty acids whenever there are limits on saturated fat in nutrient claims or health claims. For example food manufacturers could not label a product as "low in saturated fat" if the food is high in trans fat. This will help consumers identify those products high in trans fat, which they currently cannot do by reading the label. The label change could take effect in one to three years.

Koehler adds that the proposal would likely result in the public making dietary changes that would save an estimated $25 billion to $59 billion in healthcare costs over 20 years. That's compared to a cost of $401 million to $854 million to change the labels and reformulate products, she says.

To determine the health benefits of the label changes, the researchers estimated the expected decrease in trans fat intake. They created three possible scenarios, all of which assume companies will remove all trans fats from margarines. Based on informal surveys, the FDA estimates that about 30 percent of margarines already on the market are free of trans fats.

The first scenario is that 100 percent of margarines will be free of trans fats and that the change would occur as soon as the labeling changes become effective. The second scenario is that trans fats will be eliminated not only from all margarines, but also from 1.5 percent of breads and cakes and 7.5 percent of cookies and crackers over a five-year period. The third scenario has trans fats eliminated from 3 percent of breads and cakes and 15 percent of cookies and crackers, which would be phased in over seven years after the labeling change.

"When you change your diet, cholesterol levels can change within several weeks," Koehler says. Research shows that an individual begins to see the health benefits of those changes after about three years. So in the third scenario, in which the changes would be phased in, it would take about 10 years for the full health benefits to show up on a population-wide basis, she adds.
For more information contact
Darcy Spitz: (212) 878-5940 or
Carole Bullock: (214) 706-1279

Co-authors include David J. Zorn, Ph.D. and Clark Nardinelli, Ph.D. of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

NR00-1142 (fattyacids00/koehler)

Media advisory: Dr. Koehler can be reached at (202) 205-8616. (Please do not publish number.)

American Heart Association

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