This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 27, 2006
Zero Trans Fat, but Not Zero Fat
Oreo cookies will never be confused with health food. This is partly because of common sense, and partly because the iconic Oreo - it's been around since 1912 - got beat up in the uproar over trans fatty acids, or trans fats, which raise the risk for heart disease and stroke. These days, though, the reformulated snack sports a kinder, healthier image. Pick up a bag of the chocolate wafers with the creamy white centres and you'll notice a prominent proclamation. Framed in an enviro-friendly green banner on the front of the 550-g bag is the claim, "0 g trans fat per 24 g serving," which is two cookies. Sounds pretty good, and that's the problem.
There are four types of fatty acids: polyunsaturated (good), monounsaturated (good), saturated (bad) and trans (bad). Currently, even if a product contains no trans fats, a manufacturer isn't allowed to use the phrase "trans-free" if it has two or more grams of unhealthy, saturated fat per serving. But because of a regulatory oversight, it's okay to say "0 g trans fat" per serving - even though, in the case of Oreos, two cookies contain 4 g of saturated fats, fully one-fifth of the recommended daily limit. It isn't difficult to imagine someone demolishing the allotted maximum, and then some, in a single seating. Thanks to the gaping loophole in Health Canada's labelling regulations, Kraft Canada Inc., which owns Christie, can lawfully make the "0 g" claim on the Oreo. "We don't want people to think that as long as a FOOD has no trans, it's perfectly harmless," says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. "I think Health Canada had its heart in the right place when it tried to limit 'trans-free' claims, but left this loophole that companies are exploiting."
It doesn't end there. It turns out zero grams does not always mean zero grams. Under Health Canada's rules - and this the department does not consider a loophole - manufacturers are allowed to round to zero "amounts that are considered not nutritionally significant," says Health Canada spokeswoman Carole Saindon. This recognizes the fact that there are many factors that may influence the nutrient content of foods, and that there is some normal variation from one food to another. "In the case of trans fat," Saindon says, "the regulations allow manufacturers to label a product '0 g trans fat' when the amount is less than 0.2 g per serving." As for the labelling loophole that permits the 0 g claim when saturated fats are high, Health Canada says it has known about that for about a year and a half, and changes are in the works.
Kraft Canada spokesman Don Blair says the 0 g claim "is consistent with use throughout the food industry" and "meets the Health Canada requirements for rounding to zero." In reality, then, a single serving of Oreos with "0 g of trans fat" does contain traces of trans fat. Blair, however, says he doesn't know how much. Asked what the message to consumers is, Blair paused a moment before answering in doublespeak. "The message is that there are zero grams of trans fat per 24-gram serving, and this is not a trans-fat-free product."
To be fair, Kraft, like many food conglomerates, is struggling mightily to reduce the trans-fat content of its products. Bruce Holub, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says the efforts have improved foods - to a point. "If you're lowering the trans fat, and not commonly having a dramatic increase in saturated fat, I'm not going to say the product's healthy, or healthier, but I might be quite willing to say it's likely less harmful," Holub explains.
Oero isn't the only brand out there making self-congratulatory trans-fat claims. Quebec-based Saputo Bakery Inc.'s Vachon division does, too. Jos. Louis chocolate cakes trumpet the fact they now contain "80 per cent less trans fat than regular Jos. Louis per serving." But the more discrete nutrition label says each cake contains 8 g of saturates and 0.2 g trans - 41 per cent of the combined daily max. Ah Caramel! cakes, also by Vachon, are advertised as containing 90 per cent less trans fat than their predecessor. The label on the back of the box, though, says two of the small cakes contain 7 g saturated fat and 0.1 g trans, for 36 per cent of the limit. "I'm pleased that many companies are trying to get rid of their trans," Liebman says, "but people need to know that there are quite a few trans-traps still out there." In other words, Mr. Christie, you make slightly better cookies.
Maclean's March 27, 2006