California Cookie Caper

Kids in California may have to give up their Oreos, if a lawsuit filed by a San Francisco public interest lawyer is successful.

The lawsuit, filed May 1 in Marin County Superior Court, seeks a ban on the black and white cookies, arguing the trans fats that make the filling creamy and the cookie crisp are too dangerous for children to eat.

Stephen Joseph filed the suit against Nabisco, the maker of Oreos, after reading articles about the health threat posed by the artificial fat that is contained in most packaged foods but isn't listed with other nutritional information.

The big difference between this suit and others that have targeted tobacco and McDonald's fast food is that consumers know that tobacco is bad for their health and that McDonald's food contains a lot of fat, Joseph said.

"Trans fat is not the same thing at all. Very few people know about it," he said, explaining that his suit focuses on the fact that trans fats are contained hidden dangers being marketed to children.

Joseph said he targeted Nabisco because as other major snack food sellers reduced the amount of trans fats in their products, Nabisco had not.

Nabisco has been exploring ways to reduce trans fats in Oreos, said company spokesman Michael Mudd. He also pointed out that reduced fat Oreos have half the trans fats as the regular kind.

"Nutrition policy is best left to health professionals and regulatory agencies," said Mudd. "They have the expertise to address nutritional issues in the full context of people's overall eating and activity background."

The National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, which advises the government on health policy, said last summer that this kind of fat should not be consumed at all. It is directly associated with heart disease and with LDL cholesterol, the 'bad' kind that accumulates in arteries.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture said partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which contain trans fats, are present in about 40 percent of the food on grocery store shelves.

Cookies, crackers, and microwave popcorn are the biggest carriers of trans fats, which are created when hydrogen is bubbled through oil to produce a margarine that doesn't melt at room temperature and increases the product's shelf life.

The Food and Drug Administration has tried to force food companies to list trans fat content with other nutritional information on food packages, but manufacturers have challenged the rule. Even food labeled "low in cholesterol" or "low in saturated fats" may have high percentages of trans fats.

Informing customers about trans fats on food labels could prevent 7,600 to 17,100 cases of coronary heart disease and 2,500 to 5,600 deaths per year, the FDA has estimated.