Steps have been taken to reduce the amount of trans fat in foods. In 2006, trans fat values were added to the nutrition label. This spurred manufacturers to reformulate and remove trans fat from thousands of foods. Today, it is estimated that we eat 1 gram of trans fat a day, down from 4.6 grams in 2003. Though consumption is down, even this little bit of trans fat eaten each day can be harmful. It has been estimated that if we could lower the intake below 1 gram per person per day, 10,000 lives would be saved from heart disease each year.
You are wondering - what exactly are trans fats? Why are they so unhealthy to eat? And, why can't they simply be removed from food? What is all the fuss?
Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD, LD, nutrition consultant for BestFoodFacts.org and author says, "Trans fat increases the shelf life, palatability and texture of foods, but they shorten the shelf life of people who eat them regularly." Herein lays the dilemma. Trans fats are an industrial, functional, food ingredient. They are produced by spraying vegetable oils with hydrogen molecules to achieve a desired consistency of solid fat. You will find trans fat listed in the ingredients list as hydrogenated fat or partially hydrogenated fat.
You are most likely to find trans fat in:
Deep-fried restaurant foods
Frozen pie crust
You can't go to the store and buy a package of trans fat. It is added to foods to replace other solid fats, like butter or lard, to give crackers crispness, cakes a moist crumb, pie crusts flakiness, and ready-to-use frosting the ability to spread easily. To replace these functions, and not put back butter or lard, is no easy task. Trans fats also have a high smoking point. When added to oils used for frying, the oils are more stable and can be used for many more batches of food. That is why restaurant French fries and deep fried foods are higher in trans fat. For those that eat out often, their intake may be much higher than the average 1 gram a day.
Many foods on the supermarket shelf proudly announce on the label that they are trans fat free. This might not always be the case because of a labeling loophole. If a serving of food has 0.49 grams of trans fat the label may list zero. If you eat multiple serving of this food the amount of trans fat will add up. For a person eating 2000 calories a day, the recommended amount of trans fat is less than 1% of calories or less than 2 grams of trans fat each day.
Eating trans fats raise your risk for heart disease more than any other fat because they:
- Raise cholesterol levels
- Lower HDL (good) cholesterol
- Raise LDL (bad) cholesterol
- Raise triglyceride levels
- Trigger inflammation
- May increase the risk for blood clots
- Increase the risk for type 2 diabetes which increases the risk for heart disease
For every 2% increase in trans fats eaten, your heart disease risk jumps by more than 20%.
Currently, trans fats are included in the FDA's Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) ingredient list. Ingredients on this list can be added to foods without any oversight or prior approval. In November 2013 the agency called for removing, or banning, trans fats from the GRAS list. The comment period for this recommendation is open until early March 2014. After that the FDA will review the evidence and make a decision. If trans fats are removed from the GRAS list, food manufacturers will have to request approval to use the ingredient in foods they are producing. There is still time for you to make your concerns heard on this issue at:
Bottom line: When it comes to trans fats, less is best.
For more information finding trans fat in foods take a look at my latest book The Fat and Cholesterol Counter (Pocket Books) which list the trans fat values for more than 10,000 foods.
© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with sales of more than 8.5 million books.
The Diabetes Counter, 5th Ed., 2014
The Fat and Cholesterol Counter, 2014
The Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2013
The Calorie Counter, 6th Ed., 2013
The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012
The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011
The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010
The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008
Your Complete Food Counter App: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/your-complete-food-counter/id444558777?mt=8
For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to: www.TheNutritionExperts.com.
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