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WASHINGTON - After 10 years of debate, the government is requiring food labels to reveal exact levels of trans fat.
Trans fat is the stuff that helps make such foods as doughnuts, french fries, crackers, and fried chicken taste so good. But it's at least as dangerous to the heart as saturated fat--and many doctors consider it worse. Until now, consumers have had no way of knowing how much trans fat they eat.
Food and Drug Administration regulations unveiled today will require nutrition labels to include a new line listing the amount of trans fat in each food right under the amount of saturated fat. Consumers can add the two lines together to learn the total of heart-risky fats in every serving.
"Our choices about our diets are choices about our health, and those choices should be based on the best available scientific information," said FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan. "This label change means trans fat can no longer lurk, hidden, in our food choices."
The FDA has estimated that merely revealing trans fat content on labels would save between 2,000 and 5,600 lives a year, as people either would choose healthier foods or manufacturers would change their recipes to leave out the damaging ingredient.
The government is giving companies until 2006 to phase in the change.
Some companies already have begun jockeying for position in the anti-trans fat market: Frito-Lay has announced that it is eliminating trans fat from its popular Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos, and became the first major manufacturer to voluntarily begin adding trans fat content to the labels of other brands earlier this year. Wednesday, Unilever Bestfoods announced its line of "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" margarine spreads will be free of trans fat by next year.
"Clearly this is going to be a major change to food labels, and it's going to help consumers who are seeking information about trans fat content of foods to find it," said Tim Willard of the National Food Processors Association.