Trans Fat Q&A

Q: What are fats and fatty acids?
A: Fats are a group of chemical compounds that contain fatty acids. Energy is stored in the body mostly in the form of fat. Fat is also needed in the diet to supply essential fatty acids that are substances essential for growth but not produced by the body itself. The terms fat and fatty acids are frequently used interchangeably.
Q: What are the main types of fatty acids?
A: There are three main types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. All fatty acids are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atoms. A saturated fatty acid has the maximum possible number of hydrogen atoms attached to every carbon atom. It is therefore said to be “saturated” with hydrogen atoms, and all of the carbons are attached to each other with single bonds.
In some fatty acids, a pair of hydrogen atoms in the middle of a chain is missing, creating a gap that leaves two carbon atoms connected by a double bond rather than a single bond. Because the chain has fewer hydrogen atoms, it is said to be “unsaturated.” A fatty acid with one double bond is called “monounsaturated” because it has one gap. Fatty acids having more than one gap are called “polyunsaturated.” The fat in foods contains a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. In foods of animal origin, a large proportion of fatty acids are saturated. In contrast, in foods of plant origin and some seafood, a large proportion of the fatty acids are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Q: What is trans fat?
A: Trans fat (also known as trans fatty acids) is a specific type of fat formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine. However, a small amount of trans fat is found naturally, primarily in some animal-based foods. Trans fat is made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil — a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods containing these fats. Usually the hydrogen atoms at a double bond are positioned on the same side of the carbon chain. However, partial hydrogenation reconfigures some double bonds and the hydrogen atoms end up on different sides of the chain. This type of configuration is called “trans” (Latin for “across”).
Q: Where can I find trans fat?
A: Vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fat behaves like saturated fat by raising low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol that increases your risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). Trans fat can be found in some of the same foods as saturated fat, such as shortenings, spreads, crackers, candies, cookies, fried foods, baked goods and other processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Q: What is the daily trans fat intake of Americans?
A: The FDA estimates that the average daily intake of trans fat in the U.S. population is about 5.8 grams, or 2.6 percent of calories per day for individuals 20 years of age and older. On average, Americans consume approximately 4 to 5 times as much saturated fat as trans fat in their diet.
Q: Is it possible for a food product to list the amount of trans fat as 0g on the Nutrition Facts panel if the ingredient list indicates that it contains "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil?"
A: Yes. Food manufacturers are allowed to list amounts of trans fat with less than 0.5 gram as zero on the Nutrition Facts panel. As a result, consumers may see a few products that list 0 grams trans fat on the label, while the ingredient list will have “shortening,” “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “hydrogenated vegetable oil” on it. This means the food contains very small amounts (less than 0.5 gram) of trans fat per serving.
Q: What about nutrient content claims for trans fat?
A: Nutrient content claims are statements that are made on the food label package that indicate that the product contains a range from low to high of the amount of a specific nutrient (e.g., “low fat,” “high in fiber.” At this time, the FDA has insufficient scientific information to establish nutrient content claims for trans fat. Such claims are permitted, however, for saturated fat and cholesterol.
Q: What are the highlights of the trans fat rule?
A: This final rule is the first significant change to the Nutrition Facts panel since the Nutritional, Labeling, and Education Act regulations were finalized in 1993. Some significant highlights:
This final rule requires manufacturers of conventional foods and some dietary supplements to list trans fat on a separate line, immediately under saturated fat on the nutrition label.
Food manufacturers have until January 1, 2006, to list trans fat on the nutrition label. This phase-in period minimizes the need for multiple labeling changes, allows small businesses to use current label inventories, and provides economic savings. The FDA’s regulatory chemical definition for trans fatty acids is all unsaturated fatty acids that contain one or more isolated (i.e., nonconjugated) double bonds in a trans configuration. Under the agency’s definition, conjugated linoleic acid would be excluded from the definition of trans fat. Dietary supplement manufacturers must also list trans fat on the Supplement Facts panel when their products contain reportable amounts (0.5 gram) of trans fat. Examples of dietary supplements with trans fat are energy and nutrition bars.
Q: What is the scientific evidence that supports this rule?
A: In finalizing this rule, the FDA relied on scientific reports, expert panels, and studies from the Institute of Medicine/National Academies of Science (IOM/NAS), the National Cholesterol Education Program, and DHHS and USDA (Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2000). These reports concluded that consumption of trans fatty acids contribute to increased LDL cholesterol levels, which increase the risk of coronary heart disease. The IOM/NAS report on macronutrients recommended that “trans fatty acid consumption be as low as possible while consuming a nutritionally adequate diet.” An expert panel for the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Report for persons with high risk of CHD in 2001 recommended that intakes of trans fatty acids should be kept low and encouraged the use of liquid vegetable oil and soft margarine instead of butter, stick margarine, and shortening.
Q: Why is the FDA addressing trans fat?
A: The trans fat nutrition labeling rule responds, in part, to a citizen petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and is based on recently published human studies and health expert advice on trans fat. Recently the Institute of Medicine, National Academies of Science (IOM/NAS) published a report that found that trans fatty acids increase LDL cholesterol, thereby increasing the risk of coronary heart disease. The IOM/NAS report recommended that trans fat consumption be as low as possible; similar recommendations are made for saturated fat and cholesterol. This regulation will provide information on food labels about the amount of trans fat in foods so that consumers can select foods with lower levels of trans fat and thereby lower their intake of trans fat as part of a heart-healthy diet.
Q: Does this rule mean that the FDA is banning trans fat from food?
A: No, the FDA is not banning food manufacturers from using trans fat in packaged foods. The FDA is requiring food manufacturers, processors and distributors to label the amount of trans fat in a serving of food on the Nutrition Facts panel. As a result, Americans will have information they need to reduce their intake of trans fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.
Q: What are the public health benefits and costs of the trans fat final rule?
A: The FDA estimates that three years after the effective date, trans fat labeling would annually prevent from 600 to 1,200 heart attacks and save 250 to 500 lives (it takes about 3 years for lower LDL-cholesterol to result in lower CHD risk). Based on this estimate, this rule will realize a cost savings of $900 million to $1.8 billion per year in medical costs, lost productivity, and pain and suffering. The FDA estimates that industry will incur a one-time cost of approximately $140 million to $250 million. These costs include determining the amount of trans fat in the food products, relabeling the Nutrition Facts panel to add trans fat and reformulating products voluntarily to decrease the amount of trans fat.
Q: Should trans fat be eliminated from the diet?
A: No. According to experts, eliminating trans fat completely from the diet would require such extraordinary dietary changes (e.g., elimination of foods such as dairy products and meats that have naturally occurring trans fatty acids) that eliminating trans fat could cause an inadequate intake of some nutrients and create health risks.
Excerpted from: “Questions and Answers about Trans Fat Nutrition Labeling” issued by the FDA/Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. For more information on Food Labeling, visit