Dr. Carlos Camargo of Harvard Medical School calls them "fake zero foods."
These are the chips, cookies, and other products whose nutritional labels claim they have 0 grams of trans fat, a fat some scientists believe is even worse than artery-clogging saturated fats.
Trans fat, found mostly in vegetable oils, shortenings, and some margarine, is used to enhance flavor and extend shelf life. It often ends up in cookies, crackers, candy, snack foods, baked goods, and other processed foods. Most trans fat [tiny amounts occur naturally in some foods] is created artificially by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation. Trans fat raises the level of LDL [bad] cholesterol, and lowers HDL [good] cholesterol - this double whammy can increase heart disease risk.
Starting next month, all U.S. food manufacturers must list the amount of trans fat contained in their products. Many food manufacturers have rushed to reformulate their foods, with many now proudly proclaiming their foods now contain 0 grams of trans fat.
But when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration passed the regulations in 2003, it created what Dr. Camargo says was a loophole: Any food that contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can say it contains 0 grams of trans fat.
"The big deal for your readers is that companies - with approval of the FDA - are able to write 'zero' trans fat when they know that their product has trans fat in each and every serving," Dr. Camargo said in an e-mail interview with The Blade.
The problem is one of servings, said Dr. Camargo, who's also a member of 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. After all, who among us eats just three Oreos, the standard serving size? Gobble up several servings of many foods and you may have quickly consumed a hefty amount of trans fat, he argues.
"Since the [FDA has] recommended that the amount of trans fat intake be 'as low as possible,' in other words, less than 1 percent of total calories or less than 2 grams per day, it's not hard to see how the 'fake-zero' foods could create problems in an otherwise healthy diet," he said. "Over the course of the day, if you have five servings of 0.4 gram trans fat products, this would put you at the daily intake limit ... the FDA should require both the food and restaurant industries to label their products accurately so that consumers can make truly informed choices."
He added that if consumers really want to know if a food contains any trans fat, their best clue is to look for the words: "partially hydrogenated." If those words appear on the label, it means the food does contain trans fat, though possibly at a level below 0.5 grams.
Barbara Schneeman, director for the FDA's Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements, defended the 0.5 gram cut-off for trans fat, saying the primary issue is one of technology. She said an FDA review of technology used to test foods found it was difficult to get an accurate reading of trans fat for amounts less than 0.5 grams.
She added that looking at trans fat alone would be a mistake.
"Rather than focusing on one specific component, it's important to think about overall dietary balance," she said. " ... the key message is for consumers to focus on saturated fat, cholesterol, and trans fat" when looking for ways to decrease heart disease risk, not just trans fat.
Dr. Camargo argues that the FDA should just require labels saying a food has "less than 0.5 grams of trans fat" instead of saying it has zero if it really wants to help consumers make smart choices.
Ms. Schneeman said the FDA is still studying trans fat and how to communicate information about it to the public. She said she couldn't speculate on whether the FDA might try something like what Dr. Camargo suggests, or even whether the FDA would set a lower limit.
If the U.S. does eventually decide to lower limit, it might not have to look far for examples on how that works. By next month in Canada, any food sold there must contain less than 0.2 grams of trans fat to be considered 0 gram trans fat.
Lydia Dumais, manager of Canada's Trans Fat Task Force Secretariat, said Canada considered going with a 0.5 gram cut-off, but "if you were allowing it to be declared 0 up to 0.5, that means you could eat 10 food [servings] that have 0.4 and you'd have 4 grams of trans fat, which is fairly significant amount."
To be sure, Dr. Camargo's concern about the "fake zero" foods is not universal. Many food scientists argue that 0.5 grams is such a minute amount that consumers have nothing to worry about, and should focus instead on eating a healthy and well-balanced diet rather than chasing "true" 0 gram trans fat foods.
"You're not talking about a poison here, you're talking about a part of your diet that should be managed and reduced, and in a way that you still maintain a healthy diet," said Mark McLellan, dean of research for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida. "It would be difficult to find a diet that contains 0 percent fat, so a concern over absolute zero tolerance, that's not the issue."
Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy at the Washington-based Food Products Association, pointed out that other items on the nutritional label - fats, protein, carbohydrates - have the same 0.5 gram cut-off. In other words, a food can contain up to 0.5 grams of carbohydrates, for example, and still say it contains 0 percent carbohydrates.
"There's been way too much attention to this issue of zeroes on the label," he said. " ... there's no subversive element to this, and to make trans fat out to be worse than saturated fat is a disservice to the public."
Dr. Camargo counters that trans fat is the only thing on the nutritional label that carries a recommendation by the FDA to keep consumption of it "as low as possible."
Dr. Ronald Krauss, a cholesterol and fat researcher at the University of California, Berkley, was on the government panel whose advice to the federal government led to the trans fat regulations. He said he is concerned the general public may concentrate too much on avoiding tiny amounts of trans fat.
"We ran into this problem years ago when we promoted very heavily the low-fat message and people then bought foods loaded with sugar," he said, adding that calories were still high in those foods so people didn't lose weight.
However, he disagrees with Mr. Earl's viewpoint that trans fat is of no more concern than saturated fat.
"Trans fat not only raises the bad cholesterol, but it lowers good cholesterol. No other food does that," he said.
Alice Lichtenstein, a nutrition scientists at Tufts University in Boston, was on the same government panel as Dr. Krauss. She agreed with Mr. McLellan and Dr. Krauss that concentrating on trans fat alone is a bad idea.
"If you just drank a sugar cola and you just ate potatoes you'd have 0 grams trans fat, but is that what we should recommend? And if you just drank a sugar cola and you just ate french fries fried in corn oil, you'd again have 0 grams trans fat, is that what you really want to do? ... It's more complex than that. If you focus too much on trans fat, it's just one factor in the whole diet."
However, Ms. Lichtenstein, feels it might be time to revisit the 0.5 gram "cut-off."
"I don't think the public should be turned off from using the information at this point, but it's reasonable for the FDA to reassess whether they should go lower on what the maximum amount should be," she said. "If there's precedent in Canada, well, then maybe they [the FDA] should be able to do it, too."
Michael Jacobsen, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, thinks Dr. Camargo's concerns are valid, but not something to be too alarmed about.
"I don't think a major war should be fought over this, but it would be slightly more protective," to have a lower cut-off, he said, adding that the U.S. should adopt the lower threshold of 0.2 grams like Canada.
He said his group is more concerned that there's no trans fat rule regulating restaurant food. As a result, many restaurants, especially fast-food restaurants, use vegetable oils with lots of trans fat, according to his center. Some restaurant chains have begun taking steps to reduce trans fat in their products, though. Quiznos, Fazoli's, Ruby Tuesday, and Panera Bread have either eliminated trans fat from their menu, are in the process of doing so, or limiting the number of items with trans fat.
Contact Luke Shockman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6084.