People may be unknowingly consuming significant amounts of potentially harmful trans fats as a result of misleading food labels, researchers say.

The current Food and Drug Administration policy regarding the way trans fats are labeled on food is misleading, and prevents consumers from knowing the true amount of trans fat in their food, said Eric Brandt, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Brandt called for a change in the FDA's policy in an article in the January/February 2011 issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

The law allows foods that contain less than 0.5 grams of fat to be labeled as containing zero grams of fat. That's because the policy requires that fat amounts less than 5 grams be listed in 0.5 gram increments, and allows food producers to round down to the lower increment. Foods with more than 5 grams of fat are required to use one gram increments.

This means if a product has 0.49 grams of trans fat, manufacturers can label its trans fat content as zero.

Consuming as few as three such food items could lead a person to exceed the recommended intake of 1.11 grams daily without knowing it, Brandt said. For example, consuming three servings of food labeled "zero trans fat," each of which actually contained 0.49 grams of trans fat, would bring the total to 1.47 grams.

Trans fat consumption has been linked to increased risk of coronary artery disease, diabetes and sudden cardiac death.

Research shows that increasing daily trans fat consumption from 2 grams to 4.67 grams, will increase a person's risk of cardiovascular disease by 30 percent.

Brandt recommended the FDA revise its labeling protocol. He wrote that the FDA should require food labels to report trans fat content in smaller increments, enabling consumers to recognize significant levels of trans fat in food and properly manage their consumption. This change would increase awareness of the true amounts of trans fat in food, empower informed food choices, and improve public health outcomes, he said.

Brandt's article will be published in the January/February issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Pass it on: Food labeled "zero trans fat" can have up to 0.49 grams of the stuff. Researchers say the FDA policy allowing this should change.

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