April 13, 2000

FDA's Trans Fat Labeling

  • J. Howard Beales III

    Associate Professor of Strategic Management and Public Policy
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Food Labeling: Trans Fatty Acids in Nutrition Labeling, Nutrient Content Claims, and Health Claims; Proposed Rule

Stated Purpose:

"This action . . . is being taken to prevent misleading claims and to provide information to assist consumers in maintaining health dietary practices."

Summary of RSP Comment:

Under FDA's proposal, trans fats would essentially be treated as a subset of saturated fats, even though they are not in fact saturated fats. FDA's proposal elevates a convenient marketing fiction over a clear scientific fact: trans fats are not saturated fats chemically, and FDA does not conclude that they are the same as saturated fats in their biological effects. Indeed, the cost-benefit analysis suggests they are not. Nonetheless, in this proposal, different nutrients are, in effect, grouped under a common heading, most accurately described in terms other than those used on the label-bad fats. Rather than seeking to take a free ride on what consumers already know, FDA should remove the problem that gave rise to the need for the proposal: the fact that existing rules prohibit the provision of truthful information.

To facilitate the provision of truthful information to consumers, FDA should make four changes. First, it should approve a health claim about the relationship between trans fats and coronary heart disease. Second, FDA should expand the available claims regarding trans fat content, and expand the sellers who are permitted to make them. Third, FDA should facilitate the flow of information about trans fats by revising the disqualifying criteria for health claims about fatty acid content. Finally, FDA should facilitate market provision of information by providing information about trans fats in a format that clearly differentiates between trans and saturated fats.

FDA's benefit-cost analysis is a commendable effort in a difficult area. Nevertheless, it overstates benefits by relying on a study of shelf labels, rather than nutrition labels, and fails to reflect the uncertainty about the quantitative effects of saturated fats and trans fats on serum cholesterol levels. It also understates costs, most importantly by neglecting the health risks that would arise if consumers find it more difficult to locate products that are low in saturated fat and cholesterol.