Bringing Trans Fats Into the Open
These heart-harmful fats won’t stay
hidden for long, thanks to new food labeling required by the
Trans fatty acids—also known as trans fats—are formed
when food manufacturers add hydrogen atoms to unsaturated vegetable
oils (a process called hydrogenation) to make them more saturated
and therefore more solid and shelf-stable. These synthetic trans
fats are found in nearly all commercially prepared foods. In
addition to margarines, trans fats are often found in frozen
dinners, dry mixes, snack foods (including chips, crackers, and
baked goods), and fried fast food. Trans fats also occur naturally,
primarily in dairy products, beef, and pork. About a quarter
of the trans fats in the diet are from natural sources; the remainder
Why Are Trans Fats So Bad?
Trans fats not only raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol,
but they also lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol
levels. A 2004 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that recent
heart attack victims had significantly more trans fats in their
fat tissue than did healthy people. In addition, people who reported
the highest intake of trans fats were more than twice as likely
to have a heart attack as people who reported the lowest.
The research on trans fats and heart disease is so convincing
that one expert from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
estimated that removing all trans fats from margarine and just
3% of trans fats from baked items would prevent more than 17,000
heart attacks and more than 5,000 deaths related to coronary
heart disease (CHD) a year. In fact, Denmark recently banned
hydrogenated fats from all foods sold in that country.
Prepared foods currently list the types of oils they contain
and whether any oils have been hydrogenated, but there is no
requirement to list the amount of trans fats. The FDA recently
altered this policy, however.
In the biggest change to food labeling since 1993, all food
manufacturers will be required to list the amount of trans fats
per serving by January 1, 2006. Some manufacturers are already
including this listing, while others have removed trans fats
from their manufacturing processes.
The amount of trans fats in a food product will be listed below
the amount of saturated fats (see the sample nutrition label
above). A “% Daily Value” is not indicated for trans
fats because they are not recommended at all. A recent report
from the Institute of Medicine concluded that there is no safe
level of trans fat intake, so it’s important to limit your
consumption of trans fats as much as possible.
The new labeling will make it easier to choose products that
have no trans fats—or have very few. But foods with less
than 0.5 g of trans fats can round down to 0. Therefore, if a
single serving of cookies contains 0.4 g of trans fats, and you
eat a whole box (the equivalent of 10 servings), you will have
consumed not 0 g of trans fats, but a total of 4 g.
Even foods that contain no trans fats still have calories, which
all add up and can lead to weight gain, so it’s important
to eat in moderation. Remember that all fat is equally high in
calories, and saturated fat is also detrimental to your health.
Keep daily saturated and trans fat intake to 20 g or less. People
with CHD, diabetes, or elevated LDL cholesterol levels should
aim even lower, getting less than 15.5 g of saturated and trans
fats a day.
Don’t Wait for the Labeling Changes
Although the amount of trans fats is not yet included on most
nutrition labels, you can limit them in your diet by:
• Avoiding stick margarine. Instead, use tub or liquid
products like olive oil, which contain fewer hydrogenated oils.
• Checking ingredient lists for fully or partially hydrogenated
vegetable oils and for shortening—all of these foods
contain trans fats. The higher they are on the ingredient list,
the more plentiful they are in the food.