What if you suddenly discovered that a dangerous, life-threatening substance had made its way into nearly half the foods in your supermarket?
It’s not grocery terrorism or product tampering. It’s trans fat, and the FDA estimates that 2,500 to 5,600 deaths per year could be prevented if consumers were more informed about it.
But trans fat is also a critical tool for commercial food producers, from grocery chains to restaurants. It’s cheap and easy to make, easy to use, easy to store, and it extends foods’ shelf life significantly, so food manufacturers lobbied long and hard to prevent any regulation of it, including putting it on Nutrition Facts labels.
The trouble is, of all the fats, consumers most need to know the facts about trans fats, because quite simply, they are the most damaging and dangerous to health. The Institute of Medicine in 2001 issued an unequivocal statement that trans fats “should not be eaten at all.”
Bad News, Good News
Advice like that from the government’s key health advisor is hard to ignore, and finally, in July of 2003, the federal government took action, passing new rules requiring food producers to start including trans fats on Nutrition Facts labels by 2006, listing them separately from other fat content so consumers can see how much trouble they’re bargaining for.
If you’re like most Americans, you’ve been cutting back on dietary fat over the last 20 years or so, so you may wonder what the big deal is with trans fats.
The long-time rascal of dietary fat has been saturated fat, which is mainly found in animal products like meat, butter and cheeses, and vegetable oils like coconut and palm oils. They’re considered the “bad fats” because they can raise your LDL cholesterol level, which increases your risk for coronary artery disease.
But they’ve got nothing on trans fats. Also referred to as “trans fatty acids,” trans fats occur naturally only in tiny amounts. Most of us are getting trans fats made artificially, through the commercial process of hydrogenation, and we’re consuming them in mass quantities.
Adding hydrogen to unsaturated vegetable oils will make them solid at room temperature. Think of that gleaming white goop that comes in a can. This is also how margarine is made from liquid vegetable oils.
Though unsaturated fats are generally less harmful-though not less fattening-than saturated fats, the process of hydrogenation alters them at the molecular level and turns them into trans fats, making them assume many of the characteristics of saturated fats.
Like saturated fats, these trans fats in commercial food products will offer the benefit of a longer shelf life. But they also come with the downside, because like saturated fats, trans fats raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol that accumulates in arteries.
The FDA estimated that informing consumers about trans fat content on food labels could prevent 7,600 to 17,000 cases of coronary heart disease each year, to say nothing of all those deaths.
The new Nutrition Facts labels will not have to indicate any daily value percentage for trans fats, but a footnote will be included saying that the intake of trans fats should be “as low as possible.”
So until those rules come into effect, there are some ways to tell if the products you are consuming contain the nepharious trans fats.
Know Thy Enemy
Like tobacco, a little bit of trans fat once or twice probably wouldn’t harm you. It’s the cumulative effect over time that does the damage. And want to talk accumulation? Trans fats appear in more than 40 percent of standard grocery items!
Just knowing the usual suspects is a good start in protecting yourself. Many processed foods contain trans fats. Foods like french fries, fried chicken, fish sticks or virtually any batter-dipped and fried foods will contain trans fats because they are fried in hydrogenated fat.
Trans fats are also found in almost all margarines. They’re also in most pastries and doughnuts. Chips, cookies and microwave popcorn are about the biggest carriers of trans fats.
In fact, most commercial snack foods are guaranteed to be trans fat carriers. It just makes sense, doesn’t it? Food producers are looking to get that longer shelf life and satsify customers’ flavor expectations by keeping their products fresher longer.
But next time you’re savoring a Danish, just keep that glob of lardy white goop in mind. Because while trans fats can mean munching pleasure for your mouth, they’ll cause nothing but problems for your heart.
Through Thick & Thin:
As dangerous as they are, trans fats are not listed on food labels as such. So to tell if a product has trans fat in it, look for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredient list. The higher in the ingredient list that hydrogenated oils are listed, the more trans fats there are in the product.