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Consider "trans fat' labels carefully

Labels on everything from chips to bread and margarine to energy bars will have to reveal how much "trans fat" they harbor, but consumers are urged to be cautious about the new Food and Drug Administration rule.

The rule is a good first step, said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which petitioned FDA in 1993 to make the change. "People will be able to compare different products and determine which ones are worse for their hearts."

But Wootan said the FDA didn't go far enough: The labels won't tell consumers how much each dollop of margarine counts against their daily allotment of unhealthy fat. Nor will they bear a message FDA debated this spring _ that trans fat consumption should be as low as possible.

Say a snack has 5 grams of trans fat. That doesn't sound like much. Although the government hasn't set a safe-consumption limit for trans fat, Wootan advises eating no more than 20 grams a day of heart-damaging fats. So that snack could be a quarter of the allotment _ more if it contains saturated fat, too.

Trans fats are at least as bad as saturated fat _ which is found in milk products, beef and pork _ and some scientists think the trans fats are worse. Unlike any other fat, they not only raise the level of low density lipoproteins, the bad cholesterol, they may also raise triglycerides and may lower the level of high density lipoproteins, the good cholesterol.

Products advertised as low in saturated fat could have lots of trans fat, so consumers should check, Wootan cautioned.

The FDA estimated Wednesday the labeling could prevent up to 1,200 cases of heart disease and 500 deaths a year as people choose healthier foods or manufacturers change their recipes to leave out the damaging ingredient.

Companies will have until 2006 to phase in the labels. But Frito-Lay is eliminating trans fat from its popular Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos and Unilever Bestfoods said its I Can't Believe It's Not Butter margarine spreads will be free of trans fat by next year.

_ Information from the New York Times was used in this report.