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Reading labels is not as easy as it should be. Labels can be informative but also can be confusing or used to trick customers.
It often requires a good knowledge of a country’s labeling laws and the ability to interpret and decipher the meaningless codes that the food industry uses to hide ingredients they don’t want us to know are included in their products.
It is widely known and scientifically proven that industrially generated trans fats (iTFAs) are harmful to our health.
We would expect that our governments would impose clear labeling rules, so that we can make an informed decision on what we eat.
Although some countries have already implemented strict labeling laws for trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) (a major contributor to trans fats in our diet), there are many countries that either have no intention to introduce these laws, such as Australia, or have loopholes in their labeling rules, enabling manufacturers to continue using high amounts of trans fats.
Reading labels in countries with no labeling restrictions for trans fats
In many countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and some European countries (especially Eastern European), there is no legislation restricting the usage of trans fats.
Therefore, manufacturers are not required to inform the customers about the trans fatty acid contents of their foods. (1)
In these cases, reading labels is pointless, unless they clearly state that no partially hydrogenated oils were used and the product doesn’t contain trans fats. Since there is a trend to avoid trans fats, some manufacturers voluntary removed PHOs from their food production and clearly advertise it on their labels.
There are other methods, however, to avoid or reduce the trans fats intake in countries without labeling restrictions. The best method is to avoid all the potential trans fat foods such as margarine or butter flavored popcorn available from fast food outlets and find alternative substitutes such as organic butter or home made popcorn.
Learning how to read nutrition labels
Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are the major contributors of trans fatty acids (TFAs) in our diet.
Note: naturally occurring trans fats come in small amounts in the meat and dairy products of ruminant (grazing) animals.
These so called ruminant trans fats (rTFAs) are considered harmless and don’t need to be included on the labels.
In countries where there is a legal requirement to include these substances on the product labels, either within the nutrition facts or in the ingredients list, the general rule is to avoid products with labels indicating a presence of:
- trans fatty acids
- trans fat
- partially hydrogenated oils
- hydrogenated oils (Note: depending on the legislation it may be fully hydrogenated, which doesn’t contain iTFAs, or partially hydrogenated).
However, labeling legislation differs from country to country. You need to familiarize yourself with the legal requirements for labeling in your country and avoid products with doubtful or ambiguous nutrition information.
In the United States and Canada, for instance, limits are imposed on the amount of trans fats per serving size. However, trans fats can be declared as 0g if the amount of trans fats is below 0.5g per serving. (2, 3)
Here is a screen shot from the FDA labeling rules (4)
This creates a loophole which enables some manufacturers to set a serving size that allows them to claim 0g contents of trans fats.
However, if your usual serving size is higher, as in some cases, the best you can do is to assume the worst, that there is a 0.49g of trans fats per serving. Unfortunately, due to this loophole in the legislation, we can never tell if a product with “0g of trans fats” written on the label has really 0g of trans fats or 0.49g.
Let’s take Ritz crackers as an example.
Note: I am not suggesting that Ritz Crackers has lowered the serving size of their products to fit the 0g trans fats rule.
I am using them as an example to prove that by reading the nutrition information of a product we cannot tell if we will exceed the recommended daily limit of trans fats, if we consume more than the suggested serving size.
The nutrition info label of Ritz Crackers states that the serving size is 16g (5 crackers). (5)
However, if you like crackers you most likely will end up having much more than that. Many people just munch on these or similar crackers while watching TV or while working, for instance. Having around 25 biscuits (80g) in one sitting is not that uncommon.
Note: Other people can eat less than five biscuits, but I just want to make a point of how labels should be carefully analyzed before buying the product.
The screen shot shown below is from the RitzCrackers.com website, and images of the nutrition information on the packaging shows the following 3 relevant points:
- Serving size – 16g (5 biscuits)
- Contains partially hydrogenated oil (which contains trans fats)
- Trans Fat – 0g.
According to the U.S. current legislation, this serving may potentially have 0.49g of trans fat.
Assuming that you munch on 25 biscuits, multiply the potential trans fat contents by 5 [0.49g x 5 = 2.45g] and you get the amount of trans fats you will consume in the worst-case scenario.
A WHO report states that the maximum safe daily trans fats intake is 1% of the total energy intake. There are 9 calories in 1 gram of fat. This means that an average diet of 2000 calories per day, should not exceed 2.2g of trans fats per day (2000 Calories / 9 Calories of fat x 1% = 2.2 g). (6)
2.45g of trans fatty acids in one sitting is already over the maximum daily limit. If you have the habit of eating junk food during the day, this small amount of trans fats multiple time per day quickly adds up to dangerous levels.
The trick in this case is to recognize your usual serving size, as opposed to the serving size suggested on the label, and do the calculation as above. You should also be aware of your daily limit of trans fat and of the different products in your diet that may contain these dangerous substances.
The following are two labels of the same product in different packaging. The one on the left shows a serving of 5 crackers, Trans Fat 0g, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed oil (indicating trans fat contents).
The image on the right shows nutrition facts for servings of 5 crackers, as above, as well for stacks, that contain 13 crackers, which is 2.6 times more crackers.
While trans fats for the individual serving shows 0g, a stack shows 1g.
The U.S. labeling laws state that “Trans fat content must be expressed as grams per serving to the nearest 0.5-gram increment”.
This means that it is likely that the crackers contain 0.48g of trans fats.
0.48 g x 2.6 = 1.248
1.248 can be rounded down to 1 (to the nearest 0.5g increment).
This is probably why the number of crackers in the stack is 13 – an optimal amount of crackers to round down the total trans fat contents. With an extra biscuit, it would require the label to show 1.5g of trans fats per stack.
NUTRITION FACTS VS NUTRITION MYTHS
You will find a summary of the most common nutrition myths and evidence-based nutrition facts here.