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Oreo No: A lawsuit prompted the makers of Oreos to agree to take the trans fat out of their snacks--but they still don't know how they're going to do it.

Fat Lip Service

The secret's out about the hidden dangers of trans fat. But is all this controversy over protecting consumers just a lot of talk?

By Christina Waters

In the crusade to deliver us from evil, public watchdogs have cried long and loud about the dangers of saturated fats. So loudly, in fact, that butter, bacon and cheese--former staples of the American diet--are now widely known to contain artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising fats.

So thoroughly have consumer protection advocates done their jobs that today's supermarket shoppers need only turn over the package and read the nutritional label on the back to make informed choices based upon the amount of saturated fats in a cookie, cracker, cake or TV dinner.

Not all fats, however, are created equal. Experts have now aimed their sights at a greater danger that exists in our favorite snack foods--a danger that isn't immediately obvious to any but the most scrupulous consumer. This villain is trans fats, a form of fat also known as partially hydrogenated oil and added to processed foods to extend shelf life and enhance mouthfeel. And this newly controversial variety of fat turns out to have even greater life-threatening potential than butter.

As a saturated fat, butter has been shown to raise LDL (bad cholesterol) count. But trans fats go further. They raise bad cholesterol and lower the good HDL cholesterol levels, thereby undermining heart health and rolling out the red carpet for future cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

"The effect is double that found when eating saturated fats," says Dr. Charlotte Grayson, senior medical editor for WebMD Health. "And since saturated fats don't lower HDL, many experts think that trans fats are worse than saturated fats."

Trans fats are produced when hydrogen molecules are forced into the chemical structure of vegetable oil. Pumping hydrogen into liquid oil forces it to do things nature never intended. The oil stiffens and becomes solid at room temperature--just as it does inside your arteries. Visualize the fat rising to the top of a pot of soup and hardening as it cools, and you have the picture. Liquid oils deteriorate quickly and can't provide the crisp texture and creamy qualities desired in baked products. But partially hydrogenated oil, such as margarine, can--and at less cost than butter.

Badder Than Butter

In a July 9 memo, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson stated unequivocally: "Trans fats are bad fats. The less trans fat you and I eat, the healthier we will be."

Caveat emptor, right? But how can the buyer beware if there's no mention of these bad fats on the nutritional labels of processed foods? In fact, the March issue of Consumer Reports vilifies trans fat as the "stealth fat" for that very reason.

Here's how it works: Take a look at the label on an ordinary box of crackers. The total fat per serving might be 8 grams. Under that figure, a saturated fat content of 3.5 grams is listed. The difference between those two figures represents 4.5 grams of unspecified fat. More than likely, it is made up of partially hydrogenated oil.

But since there is no requirement to disclose that information, food manufacturers haven't. Consumers are easily misled into thinking that since there are only 3.5 grams of saturated fat in the product, the product is therefore a healthier choice than one containing 4 grams of saturated fat, but little or no trans fats at all. (Butter, by comparison, has 7 grams of saturated fat and .3 grams of trans fat per tablespoon.)

The good news is that all the pressure by nutritionists and lobbyists to educate the public about the presence of unhealthy trans fats in their favorite foods has finally reached the government's ears. And there may be unlikely heroes to thank when the dust has settled.

In July, the FDA bowed to pressure and mandated that manufacturers will be required to list trans fat on nutritional labels as of January 2006. In practical terms, the three-year lag will allow industry R&D units to tinker with recipes and locate consumer-friendly substitutes for trans fats and their economically desirable properties.

But even by conservative FDA estimates, 2,500 to 5,600 Americans will lose their lives each year from trans fat-linked coronary heart disease before the new labels go into effect. A November 1999 report from the Harvard Institute of Public Health estimated that 30,000 heart disease deaths each year could be attributed to the presence of trans fats in foods, trans fats that, at the time, no one but nutrition experts and health food aficionados knew were even there.

"Our study has shown that higher trans fat intake is more detrimental than saturated fat intake in terms of coronary disease," sums up Dr. Frank Hu, one of the authors of the study. "People who are at the top 20 percentile of trans fat intake had 50 percent increased risk of CHD and 30 percent increased risk of diabetes compared to those at bottom 20 percentile of trans fat."

These are the kind of sobering figures which have led many to view trans fats as being as toxic as nicotine. And the current economic and public relations hit being taken by tobacco giants is a potent reminder that manufacturers of popular products rarely reveal more than they need to, unless and until class action suits are brought citing damage caused by such product use. The fallout from successful RJ Reynolds suits continues--only last month the tobacco company announced massive layoffs of 40 percent of its workforce, over 2,700 workers. And in June, cigarette manufacturers agreed to pay out an award of $116 million nationwide over the next 20 years in smoking-related damages.

Against this backdrop, the Marin County lawsuit filed in May by attorney Stephen Joseph against Nabisco could be seen as yet another wake-up call to manufacturers reluctant to come forth with full and accurate disclosure in the labeling of packaged foods.

Oreo Outrage

"You've got to start somewhere," Joseph said of his suit against the manufacturers of the beloved snack cookie Oreos.

Acknowledging that the ubiquitous cream-filled chocolate cookie is an American "icon," Joseph filed suit against Kraft (which owns Nabisco, the makers of Oreos), based on the fact that dangers of trans fats are not common knowledge--especially to children.

But a few days after filing, Joseph dropped the suit.

"I called them, spoke to Michael Mudd and they agreed to remove trans fats from Oreos," says Joseph.

Satisfied with this reassurance from the company spokesman, Joseph believes that a domino effect will ensue--or, as he puts it, "if trans fat can be taken out of Oreos, it can be taken out of anything."

At the suggestion that the Oreo suit was a publicity stunt, Joseph maintains that he "took yes for an answer." The basis of the suit, he contends, was that trans fats were not at the time known to be unsafe by their primary target market, kids.

"But with so much coverage recently, I felt I'd done my job," he says.

He's right about the publicity. L'affaire Oreo hit major network news and added to the growing chorus of indignation about the presence of fat, not only on our national hips, but upon our collective lips.

Joseph claims not to be trying to ban junk food.

"Trans fat is so much worse, and after all McDonald's is so far gone. My Oreo suit was only directed toward the interests of kids. If adults want to be stupid, they can," he says.

So the question is: Has Kraft made good on its promises about trans fat?

According to Kraft's director of corporate affairs, Kris Charles, they're working on it.

"Developing alternative ingredients with the same taste, texture and freshness characteristics as fats that contain trans fatty acids, but with better nutrition, has been a challenge for the food industry," admits Charles. He estimates the company will be able to roll out reduced trans or trans free products by 2004 or 2005.

Sandwich cookies like Oreos "are more of a challenge," he understates. "Particularly the creme filling. But we have an active research effort under way."

If Kraft is successful, the implications will indeed be widespread. A subsidiary of the supersized Altria Group Inc. (the former Philip Morris under a more appetizing new name), Kraft Foods makes Oscar Mayer hot dogs, Velveeta cheese, Post cereals, Ritz crackers, Miracle Whip, deGiorno pizza and Kool-Aid, to name but a few brands.

Just How Bad Are Trans Fats?

By now, any consumer with a full-length mirror is all too aware of the dangers in consuming fats with reckless abandon. Spreading waistlines tell one part of the story, and heart disease as America's No. 1 cause of death tells the other. Both can be attributed to the overconsumption of saturated and trans fats. Trans fats raise cholesterol overall, and when consumed in quantity lead to obesity, which according to the Surgeon General costs the public an estimated $117 billion a year in health care, benefits and lost wages.

The difficulty in laying blame at the trans fatty acid doorstep is that many variables such as genetics and socioeconomic environment play crucial roles. San Francisco Bay area author and nutritionist Ed Blonz, whose nutrition columns appear in over 600 newspapers nationwide, admits that, from a litigation perspective, it would be difficult "to isolate the effects of trans fats to establish causation."

The person who regularly consumes donuts for breakfast, for example, might also smoke cigarettes and not exercise. How large a role consumption of trans fats plays in determining future diabetes, heart attack and stroke, vis-à-vis other contributing factors, is clearly a complex and intricate equation.

"The susceptibility to marketing may be what's to blame here," Blonz says. "And the fact that food choices are back-burnered when we get busy. We need food now, and a healthful diet becomes an afterthought."

In Blonz's judgment, pressure from the manufacturing industry, and from soy and corn producers--major sources of oils for hydrogenation--held back the FDA labeling.

"The United States is amazingly invested in hydrogenation," he says.

Also at issue is the need to weigh social responsibility against individual freedoms such as the right to eat oneself into an early grave. Is labeling enough? Or do people really need to be protected from themselves, and from irresponsible advertising? Is public interest lawyer John Banzhaf correct when he says, "If legislators don't legislate, then we have to litigate"? Why not simply leave people alone and allow them to take responsibility for their food choices?

"We've had plenty of opportunity to try that, and we know it doesn't work," says nutrition expert Marion Nestle, whose Food Politics argues strongly for manufacturer responsibility in the production and marketing of health-impairing foods.

Oral Judgment

Fresh from a recent appearance at the annual MUFSO Conference (Multi-Unit Food Service Operators--think Dunkin' Donuts, Red Lobster, Wendy's, Denny's, Outback Steakhouse) in Atlanta, George Washington University professor of legal activism John Banzhaf minces no words in claiming that trans fat labels on supermarket products won't be enough to protect the health of the American public.

"Fast food is where over 50 percent of our trans fats are consumed," he says. "The irony is that people might go to a food store and be on the watch for products low in trans fats, and then go across the street to McDonald's and eat fast food loaded with trans fats. Trans fats that remain unlabeled."

The fast food giant is Banzhaf's favorite target. He and his law students have made a highly publicized impact in four successful suits on fast food fat giants. And it's their failure to disclose that irks him.

"You've got to constantly remind people over and over. We knew that wearing seat belts could save lives. But it took media bombardment to make a legislative impact," he says.

Banzhaf believes that product warnings, much like the Surgeon General's caveat on cigarettes, would be "an excellent idea."

"States could go further than the labeling of trans fats, and require additional warnings," he says.

In the end, Banzhaf believes that "lawsuits help educate." However much education and labeling takes place, though, it is up against the multibillion- dollar onslaught of food advertising.

"And they're not advertising apples," Banzhaf points out.

Blonz, however, cautions that corporate fines may be passed on to the public in the form of higher product prices.

"A real victory, when it occurs, comes with an admission of fault, the payment of the penalty and the elimination of the hazardous ingredients," he says.

Personal discretion must be weighed against social consequences, always a difficult balance in a democracy. Cynics will claim that by the time trans fats are eliminated, food manufacturers will have found other ways to pump up the mouthfeel and extend the shelf life of their products, with Franken-additives whipped up in the laboratory. It could be a case of removing trans fats and adding something worse--nutritionally robbing Peter to pay Kraft.

Others, like Blonz, have faith in the process.

"Just causes tend to win out over time," he says. "The airing of a new issues often serves as a wake-up call to industry."

For some consumers, it may be too little, too late, but most consumer advocates see the impending trans fat listing on nutritional labels as a healthy sign.

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From the December 3-10, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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