Checkoff-funded: Soy project addressing trans fats

A new food labeling rule issued by the Food and Drug Administration underscores the relevance of current soybean checkoff-funded research to reduce trans-fatty acids in some foods.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson announced July 9 that food labels will be required to list the amount of unhealthy trans-fatty acids — trans fat — to give consumers better information when choosing their foods.

“U.S. soybean producers recognize the need to find oil alternatives for food companies to reduce trans fatty acids in their foods,” says United Soybean Board (USB) Chairman David Durham, a soybean farmer from Hardin, Mo. “We believe new U.S. soybean varieties being developed by the soybean checkoff's Better Bean Initiative (BBI) will offer the food industry viable oil alternatives that can help avoid trans fatty acids in some foods.”

The soybean checkoff's effort to improve the composition of U.S. soybeans includes specific research to reduce trans-fatty acids in some foods. The new labeling requirement will mean that manufacturers of most conventional foods and some dietary supplements will have to list in the nutrition facts panel the trans fat content of the product, in addition to currently required information about its overall fat content and saturated fat content.

The additional information, say FDA officials, will give consumers a more complete picture of fat content in foods, “allowing them to choose foods low in trans fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, all of which are associated with an increased risk of heart disease.”

Research funded by soybean checkoff funds has harvested one new U.S. soybean variety, which reduces the need to hydrogenate its oil. Food processors use hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to create stability in certain foods. But the practice creates trans-fatty acids, which, according to the FDA, consumers need to avoid, along with saturated fats and high calories.

“When we look at food labels, we need to remember that healthy eating is about reducing total fat,” says Jackie Newgent, a New York City-based dietitian and chef who advises USB. “Non-hydrogenated, liquid soybean oil, which we often use in salad dressings and which is widely available in our grocery stores, contains no trans fatty acids and is high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.”

Soybean oil from the first new Better Bean Initiative soybean variety, which reduces the need to hydrogenate the oil, is being tested this year by the food industry. The soybean checkoff will help facilitate food industry testing of another oil from another new U.S. soybean variety that will be harvested this fall.

“FDA's recent announcement demonstrates the importance of this checkoff-funded production research project,” says Durham. “This soybean checkoff initiative has targeted specific soybean variety traits needed in new U.S. soybean varieties that will be beneficial throughout the human food and animal feed value chain.”

Under the new regulations, consumers will be able to find trans fat listed on food nutrition labels directly under the line for saturated fat. The new information is the first significant change on the nutrition facts panel since it was established in 1993. The labeling change reflects scientific evidence showing that consumption of trans fat, saturated fat and dietary cholesterol raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — “bad” cholesterol — levels that increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

Nearly 13 million Americans suffer from coronary heart disease, and more than 500,000 die each year from causes related to coronary heart disease. Trans fat is often but not always found in the same foods as saturated fat, such as vegetable shortening, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, salad dressings and other processed foods.

By providing more useful information to consumers seeking a healthy diet, the new labels are expected to reduce the costs of illness and disease for Americans. The FDA estimates that the changes in regulations will save between $900 million and $1.8 billion each year in medical costs, lost productivity and suffering.

Although some food products already list trans fat on the food label, food manufacturers have until Jan. 1, 2006, to add it to the nutrition label. This phase-in period, say FDA officials, minimizes the need for multiple labeling changes and allows small businesses to use up current label inventories. The FDA will allow manufacturers to implement the change more quickly if so desired, and it expects many manufacturers will soon start listing trans fat content on their labels.

In addition, dietary supplement manufacturers will now be required to list trans fat, as well as saturated fat and cholesterol, on the supplement facts panel when their products contain more than trace amounts (0.5 gram) of trans fat. Examples of dietary supplements that may contain trans fat include energy and nutrition bars.

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