WASHINGTON - Store nutritionists are ramping up efforts to educate shoppers about trans fatty acids in the wake of newly implemented 2006 federal food labeling requirements that appear to have generated confusion.
Retailers said consumers are unable to understand why the new rules permit packages to claim no trans fat but still include partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient.
Nutritionists said that in phone calls, e-mails, store tours and one-on-one conversations, they're hearing the same message from shoppers: They know trans fats are bad for them, but don't understand why food products containing partially hydrogenated oil - which leads to the creation of trans fat - may list their trans fat content as zero.
Nutritionists report that interest, especially heavy among older, cholesterol-aware shoppers, has been building in the months leading up to Jan. 1, when the Food and Drug Administration here started requiring packaged food makers to disclose their products' trans fat content. Many major manufacturers have already reformulated their products to remove trans fats and have been marketing those products as having zero trans fats, however.
James and other nutritionists explain to consumers that the FDA allows manufacturers to list the trans fat amount as zero if the food contains less than 0.5 gram per serving.
"I personally think there's some misrepresented labels out there," said Kathy Neufarth, director of consumer affairs for three-store Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Ohio. Manufacturers are reformulating their products to get the per-serving amount below 0.5 gram, she said, "Which means it's really not trans fat free."
Neufarth has intercepted shoppers in the aisle and pointed out that the food product they're holding isn't completely trans fat-free. "They put it back. They do," she said.
Donna Dolan, corporate dietitian for Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa, tells shoppers not to worry about consuming less than a half-gram per serving. "It's really a negligible amount."
In any case, the confusion doesn't end there. Dolan said some shoppers think foods are safe as long as they're trans fat-free - even if they contain saturated fats.
There's another wrinkle: Some trans fat is naturally occurring and considered safe. Called conjugated linoleic acid, it's mainly found in organic beef and dairy products, and has popped up in supplements as well.
Some nutritionists say trans fats have captured far more interest than have allergens, which also are the subject of a new labeling requirement that took effect Jan. 1. That may be in part because there are far more people with weight and cholesterol concerns than there are allergy sufferers. "And the ones that do have food allergies have always been label readers," Neufarth said. Dolan said for the many sufferers of gluten allergies, the requirement that packages list the presence of wheat doesn't go far enough anyway.
Nutritionists say the fat confusion creates an opportunity to educate shoppers.
"Just putting the whole trans fat on the label is only the tip of the iceberg," said Leah McGrath, dietitian for Ingles Markets, Asheville, N.C.
She's given several talks on the subject of trans fats, and she posts information online and in the Ingles circular.
Hy-Vee added a brochure on trans fats to its series of Eating Well brochures; it should hit stores in February. In addition to the spinner rack where all Eating Well brochures are displayed, it probably will be placed in the aisles where snacks and baked goods, common harbors of trans fats, are located. The Jan. 25 circular will include a blurb about trans fat-free foods. "I'm going to hype it up in the next couple months because it's in the customers' interest," she said.
At Dorothy Lane Market, the nutrition staff considered shelf signs to highlight trans fat-free foods but concluded that "at some point, you get sign pollution," Neufarth said. But the store in the past year has put out a brochure on fats. This month, it will launch a new five-part series of nutrition presentations, one of which will address fats.
Manufacturers have been caught up in their own version of trans fat confusion. Until recently, a lot of small manufacturers weren't aware of the pending requirement, said Rick Moller, senior vice president of category management at Tree of Life, the natural and specialty foods distributor. That's changed, as suggested by a recent sharp increase in the number of companies that have sought more time from the FDA to comply with the labeling requirement.
The FDA said that to handle the pending requests for waivers it's received, it would consider giving a pass to firms that requested an extension by Dec. 31, 2005, provided the amount of trans fat in the product is 0.5 gram or less per serving, among other conditions.
Moller said the FDA's waiver process means retailers need not worry about selling through inventory with old labels. "It appears [that] if they're going through steps to create the exemption process, it'll be some time before they make an enforcement." For that reason, he said, his company will wait until the end of the first quarter to make sure new shipments to warehouses carry the new labels.