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Fats in the Fast LaneFats in the Fast Lane

March 1, 2005

4 Min Read
Fats in the Fast Lane

March 2005
Legs and Regs

Fats in the Fast Lane

By Neal D. Fortin
Contributing Editor

For a decade, labeling law emphasized the fat content of food and discouraged its consumption. "There was the belief that eliminating fat, reducing it or controlling it would have an impact on health," Sebastian Cianci, FDA spokesperson, explained.

No more. Fats are in the fast lane. FDA concluded that the current label's emphasis on fat obscures the message that calories are the main concern for obesity. "There is no substitute for the simple formula that 'calories in must equal calories out' in order to control weight," said Lester Crawford, Ph.D., acting commissioner of FDA.

Calling on calories
FDA's new strategy focuses on the message "calories count." The "Nutrition Facts" panel will be revised to highlight the critical role calories play and to make counting calories easier. For example, the agency might increase the type size and add a column listing the amount of calories as a Percent Daily Value.  

FDA also views the Nutrition Facts panel's format as a means to encourage the development of healthier foods. Therefore, FDA's revisions will encourage the reformulation of foodlower in calories and with a healthier balance of fatty acids.  

Similarly, FDA will offer the availability of new health claims as an incentive to firms to develop and reformulate foods. For instance, FDA is considering authorization of health claims for "reduced" and "low" calorie, such as "diets low in calories may reduce the risk of obesity, which is associated with type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers."

Good fats, bad fats
FDA's shift recognizes the growing scientific evidence that there are both good fats and bad fats. The trend began last year when FDA announced that nutrition labels must include a separate listing for "bad" trans fatty acids, which are associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease.

Last September, "good" fats got a boost from FDA when it announced the availability of a qualified health claim for reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) on conventional foods that contain eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids. Typically, these are contained in oily fish, such as salmon, trout, tuna and herring.   Scientific evidence indicates that these fatty acids might be beneficial in reducing heart disease.

Another "good" fat boost came in November when FDA approved a qualified health claim for monounsaturated fat from olive oil and a reduced risk of CHD. Although the studies are not conclusive, some evidence suggests that consumers might reduce their risk of heart disease if they consume monounsaturated fat from olive oil or from olive-oil-containing foods in place of foods high in saturated fat, while at the same time not increasing the total number of calories consumed.

With the newly allowed claims and a revised label to make healthy and lower-calorie choices easier, it is hoped that consumers will make better-informed and more-health-conscious choices when they shop for food. This, in turn, can motivate firms to develop more-healthful products and use the potential health benefits as a competitive edge.  

These label changes should be good news for consumers as they work to improve their health by identifying healthier foods, and FDA estimates the changes will save billions of dollars each year in medical costs and lost productivity.


Neal D. Fortin is an attorney concentrating in food and drug law as well as a professor in food and drug law at Michigan State University. For more information, visit his websites: www.fortinlaw.com or www.foodlaw.org.
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