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To: Matmail@aol.com:

There are lots of packaged foods out there with a big splash on the front saying "99% FAT FREE." On the back it says, for example, total fat 1 gram, which equals 2% of the "daily value," and the package contains one serving of 70 calories, including 10 calories from fat (14%). How the hell do they get away with the "99% FAT FREE" crap? I called the FDA, and they sent me a nice $5 book (free) that only talks about the label on the back. I have asked in grocery and health-food stores and either got an "I don't know" or a bunch of double talk (which indicated the same thing, or they weren't listening, or both). Can you find the answer?

-- Frank, Serra Mesa

So now we know where more of our tax money goes. Making free gifts of $5 books, willy-nilly, to buy off the agitators. And if the back panel on food products gets any larger, they'll have to start issuing CD-ROMs with every box of Froot Loops. Personally, I know way more about Mallomars than I ever wanted to. Personally, I wish the FDA would knock it off. But they won't, of course. Since 1990 they've been frantically issuing labeling regulations, and rules for implementing the labeling regulations, and exceptions to the rules for implementing the labeling regulations. Pre-1990, if a manufacturer said its product was "light," they might mean it was a pale color or so full of air it was easy to pick up or maybe that there's just less of it in the package. What was a shopper to do?

Well, now we know what "light" means, and "lite," and "fat-free," and "healthy," because it's all spelled out in the regulations. But one little thing that still exists from the dark days before the millennium labeling laws is "99% (or whatever) fat-free." In virtually every situation, you can assume the banner means 99 percent of the weight of the product is something other than fat. That's not as good as it sounds, since fats and oils don't weigh much but contribute a lot of calories. A 99 percent fat-free product can still pack on the blubber. As you noticed, that 1 percent of fat by weight is actually 14 percent if you're looking at calories. By the time you calculate your way through the supermarket these days, you're too exhausted to eat.

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