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NUTRITION LAB

Meat nutritional guidance in black and white

January 09, 2011|By Elena Conis, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Beginning in 2012, dozens of popular cuts of raw meat will have "nutrition facts" labels listing total calories, calories from fat, total grams of fat and grams of saturated fat. Cholesterol, sodium, protein and vitamin content will also be given.

Beginning in 2012, dozens of popular cuts of raw meat will have "nutrition facts" labels listing total calories, calories from fat, total grams of fat and grams of saturated fat. "It's kind of a mystery now" what's in there, says a USC professor of preventive medicine.

Health-conscious grocery shoppers can easily find the fat and calorie content of whole-grain pasta, cage-free eggs, organic tomato sauce and Greek yogurt. But when it comes to chicken breasts, sirloin steaks or pork chops, the only information that's sure to be on the package is the price.

Now that will change. On Dec. 29, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that the "nutrition facts" labels — those familiar black-and-white charts that appear on most packaged foods — will soon be required on raw meat products too.

"It's kind of a mystery now what's in raw meats," says Jaimie Davis, a dietician and professor of preventive medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine. Nutrition experts say the requirement may not do much to alter most Americans' eating habits, but "the labels will be most useful for people who are already label-conscious or trying to change their diet," Davis says.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2012, information on total calories, calories from fat, total grams of fat and grams of saturated fat will be required for 40 popular cuts of meat, including hamburger, ground turkey, chicken breast and tenderloin steak. Nutrition labels will also list the products' cholesterol, sodium, protein and vitamin content.

That will bring raw meat in line with cooked and semi-prepared meats, such as those that are seasoned or packaged in marinades. The USDA has required nutrition labels on those items since the 1990s, a few years after a federal law mandated labels for most foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

The labeling requirements are meant to help Americans follow federal dietary recommendations, according to the USDA. Guidelines published by the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services last year recommend that adults get no more than 20% to 35% of their calories from fats of any kind, and no more than 7% of calories from saturated fats, the kind that raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

For an adult consuming 2,000 calories a day, that means limiting saturated fat intake to 16 grams or less per day, according to the American Heart Assn.

But surpassing that limit is all too easy without information on the fat content of meats, says Dr. David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.

Red meats — such as beef, lamb and pork — are a top source of dietary fats, especially saturated fats, he says. And while consumers who prepare meats at home may know to trim visible fat, much of the fat in meat is "hidden" in the muscle fiber, he says. Consider: A single trimmed beef tenderloin steak weighing roughly 6 ounces contains 30 grams of fat, including 12 grams of saturated fat, and more than 400 calories, according to the USDA's National Nutrient Database.

Making that information readily accessible will be a tremendous boon for heart patients, who are often told to avoid fat and cholesterol, says Dr. Ehtisham Mahmud, co-director of the Sulpizio Family Cardiovascular Center at UC San Diego.

These days, people told to watch their fat intake must grapple with confusing label information, Heber says. Current labels on ground meat, for example, list the percentage of the meat that is lean. But that can be misleading: Ground beef labeled 80% lean may sound healthy, but a lot of fat remains in the other 20%, Heber says. Fashion a 6-ounce hamburger from that meat, and the patty will provide more than 13 grams of saturated fat and 34 grams of total fat.

Under the new regulations, any meat that lists its lean content will also have to list its percentage of fat, along with its grams of fat per 4-ounce serving.

But the new regulations aren't as helpful as they could be, says Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group. The rules let companies choose whether to list nutrition facts directly on packages of meat or on a poster or brochure in the store, which many consumers won't seek out, she says.

Plus, the information on the labels will be taken from a database of national averages, which means the actual amount of fat, calories or other nutrients may vary significantly from, for example, one chicken breast to the next, depending on how the birds were raised and what they were fed, says Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis.

Despite the regulations' shortcomings, the labels will be a huge help to people who are trying to make healthier food choices, says Davis, the dietician at USC. The new labeling may not be perfect, she says, but "it's a step in the right direction."

health@latimes.com

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