Government to regulate fat content

The nation’s food industry is about to get an oil change.

Makers of fast foods and packaged foods are looking for ways to reduce trans fats, oils that can boost “bad” cholesterol levels.

And the federal government is readying regulations that will require nutrition labels to include the amount of trans fats.

The movement to reduce the amount of trans fats picked up speed earlier this month when McDonald’s announced plans to cut the amount in its fried-food items. Its french fries will contain almost 50 percent less.

Two days after McDonald’s decision, a report by the National Academy of Sciences stressed that consumers should avoid trans fats because of the effect on bad cholesterol levels.

The pressure to replace trans fats with more heart-friendly oils will likely increase next year when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expects to release its final label rule. Once it is published, companies will have a year to add trans fats to their nutrition labels, according to the FDA.

Trans fats are often found in cookies, crackers, dairy products, meat and fast food. Their presence tends to harden oils, increase shelf life, and keep flavors more stable.

Companies “are in the process now of experimenting and searching for solutions,” said Gene Grabowski, vice president of communication and marketing for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. “You can expect to see some alternative ingredients.”

Don’t expect trans fats to disappear, though. Grabowski said the market will make room for more choice those products with trans fats and those without it.

“Some people will want the fullest flavor possible and will not be concerned about the trans fat content,” Grabowski said.

In its report, the National Academy panel urged people to reduce consumption of trans fats and their cousins saturated fats. Both kinds of fats have been linked to higher risks of heart disease

Ann Rusniak, McDonald’s chief nutritionist, said McDonald’s followed the emerging research data about the trans fats’ harmful effects for a decade and worked intensively on the switch for the last three years. The company’s new oil is a blend of corn and soybean oils.

“Our hope is the rest of the food industry will follow our leadership in lowering trans fatty acids, because consumers will then get an even bigger, more beneficial impact,” Rusniak said.

The shift in fats means that a super-sized order of french fries will contain 4.6 grams less of trans fats than today’s 9.8 grams. That adds up to a half-pound less of trans fat in a year for a customer eating one such a portion a week.

McDonald’s, which plans to start its oil change next month will also reduce saturated fats in its fries by 16 percent. But there is a caveat to McDonald’s more healthful menu.

The total fat content in fries won’t change. The 610 calories in a super-size order of french fries will remain 610 calories.

“This doesn’t change french fries into a health food,” said Kathleen Zelman, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

“It is nice that McDonald’s is doing it,” said Marion Nestle, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University and the author of “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.”

“But it doesn’t really address the major issue of fast food, which are calories.”