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Checking Out Trans Fats

It might come as a surprise to learn that, until this week, the American Heart Association didn’t have any criteria spelling out limits on trans fats. It’s not that the organization was ignoring them; the problem was that the federal government never established a Daily Value for them.

That’s about to change. Beginning Jan. 1, 2008, the AHA will require all products bearing its well-known heart-check logo to meet new criteria specifically developed for trans fatty acids. Officials say trans fats in any approved food item will be capped at 0.5 grams per serving — an amount that's generally recognized (even by the government) as zero. Until this point, the amount of this uber-fat was simply lumped them in with every other fat. As long as the total amount of saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol was under 3 grams per serving, the AHA considered its requirements met.

The changes reflect a growing awareness of trans fats, a manmade product created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation. The food industry likes hydrogenation because it increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods. But faced with record levels of obesity and diabetes among Americans, the Food and Drug Administration began requiring manufacturers to break out the content of trans fats on a product’s Nutrition Facts panel as of Jan. 2006. By joining with its new limits, the AHA is answering consumer advocates who criticized the group for not keeping up with the times.

A list created by the FDA shows just how pervasive trans fats have become in our food supply: Americans consume roughly 6 grams of trans fats a day, most of them coming from cake, cookies and crackers. The AHA’s new criterion will apply to both categories in the organization’s Food Certification Program: Standard and Whole Grain. Standard Certification will basically limit trans fats to less than 0.5 grams per Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC), as well as per labeled serving size.

The AHA developed separate requirements for whole grain foods, which customarily contain more of the so-called “good” or unsaturated fats. However, the trans fat criteria is still less than 0.5 grams per RACC and per labeled serving size.