Nutrition labels can be confusing. Experts say their information is often difficult to interpret, and that ingredient amounts are meaningless if not put in the proper context.
According to one researcher, nutrition labels are not only confusing but deceptive, particularly when it comes to trans fats, the unsaturated fats often found in junk food.
Eric Brandt, now a student at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland, did some investigating while still an undergraduate and found that even when labels indicated no trans fats, foods often contained them.
Using this research, he published a paper in the current issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion, calling for changes in the way trans fats are listed on labels. Experts agree that trans fats are a health hazard but believe there might be better ways to indicate their presence, and that changing regulations could have adverse effects on consumers.
"I looked more closely at the list of ingredients and found that a lot of foods that say they have no trans fats actually contain partially hydrogenated oils, which do have trans fat in them," said Brandt.
He said the discrepancy occurs because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require manufacturers to list trans fats if they are present in amounts less than .5 grams.
Omitting that information, however, could pose a danger to consumers.
"Research has consistently shown that if you add up small amounts less than .5 grams over time, it can become a significant amount and can be harmful to health," said Brandt.
Current dietary guidelines recommend consuming no more than 1.11 grams of trans fats per day. Trans fats also tend to raise levels of "bad" cholesterol and lower the levels of "good" cholesterol.
"Trans fat is potently associated with inflammation, heart disease, diabetes and probably cancer," said Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn. "It is in a very literal sense a kind of slow poison."
But other nutrition experts say that while trans fats can be detrimental to health, there's no need to fear that consuming them will greatly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Because of the FDA's current requirements, if a food contains .49 grams of trans fat, the manufacturer is permitted to list the amount of trans fat as zero.
"The current recommendation favors the manufacturers, because it is based on serving size," said Dr. Jana Klauer, a physician in private practice in New York.
She gave as an example the amount of trans fat for a bag of potato chips. There may be less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving, but a serving may be only five chips.
"The listing is misleading to the consumer in that they read zero trans fat on the label and unknowingly consume the trans fats," she said.