New Labeling Helps You Avoid Trans Fat

New Labeling Helps You Avoid Trans Fat
But trans fats still lurk in fried foods, baked goods--and butter's no better.

ANY DAY NOW, after investing 30,000 hours in research and testing, Kraft Foods will introduce an Oreo cookie that contains no trans fat. The company, like other food manufacturers, has been scrambling to meet a Jan. 1 Food and Drug Ad ministration (FDA) deadline adding trans fats to Nutrition Facts labels: All packaged foods with a half-gram or more of trans fat per serving must now fess up.

Trans fats, containing trans-fatty acids and typically labeled as "hydrogenated" oils, have been widely used in baking and frying because of their physical properties. Trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to liquid oils--primarily soybean oil--which not only solidifies the oil but also makes it resist going rancid and degrading with reheating. Trans fats were also once touted as a cheap and apparently healthy alternative to butter and other animal fats.

But in 1990 Dutch researchers showed that trans fats increase LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels while decreasing HDL ("good") cholesterol. In 2002, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences advised that diets should minimize trans fat intake. When the FDA set its labeling requirement for January 2006, the rush to banish trans fat was on. Last August, at the height of trans-fat hysteria, New York City health commissioner Thomas Frieden, MD, called on restaurants to abandon hydrogenated fats, inaccurately likening them to toxic substances such as asbestos and lead.
The good news is that thousands of products, ranging from Oreo cookies to Triscuits crackers, are indeed shedding their trans fat. Now a glance at the label will identify those that haven't gotten with the program.

The bad news, however, is that America's $476 billion restaurant industry remains addicted to trans fats. And, even with zero trans fat, Oreo cookies still aren't exactly health food.

FAST-FOOD CHAINS, heavily reliant on frying, have been the slowest to kick the trans-fat habit. McDonald's, which switched from beef tallow to partially hydrogenated soybean oil in 1990, promised back in September 2002 to change its oil again. But it still hasn't delivered on that promise, and recently settled a lawsuit for $8.5 million for inadequately publicizing the delay. A Burger King spokesperson says trans fats have "never been an issue" with its customers.
For now, your best strategy to avoid trans fats--and, just as important, saturated fats--when eating out is to skip the fried foods. A large order of fries typically contains six grams of trans fat. Also beware of takeaway baked goods such as doughnuts. And, of course, check the new labels on commercially baked products like Oreos.

But, whether eating out or buying packaged foods, don't think that simply avoiding trans fat makes for a healthful choice. Some anti-trans fat crusaders have gone overboard in what The New York Times calls "the panic du jour"--going so far as to claim that switching to butter, palm oil or anything else would be an improvement over the dreaded trans fats.
The science doesn't back up that extreme position, however. Trans fat is no worse for your health than saturated fat, according to the National Academy of Sciences, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA. In fact, James Cleeman, MD, coordinator of the NHLBI's National Cholesterol Education Program, told the Times, "What's Public Enemy No. 1 with respect to cholesterol raising? From a dietary standpoint, it's saturated fat."

"Don't switch from trans fat to saturated fat," advises Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, Stanley N. Gershoff Professor at Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. "The aim should be to minimize the intake of both. And remember that the bottom line is still total caloric intake."

SO WHEN YOU STUDY the new Nutrition Facts labels, don't just look for a zero on the trans-fat line. (You'll notice that no percentage accompanies the trans-fat number when a product does have more than a half-gram per serving, since there is no Daily Value for trans fat.) Take a gander at the line above it, too: How much saturated fat are you getting per serving? And don't forget the top line, calories, whatever their source; if your caloric intake exceeds that burned in physical activity, you'll put on the pounds.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low- and non-fat dairy products, legumes and fish. Lichtenstein, who chairs the AHA's nutrition committee, says, "What Americans need to do is focus on overall lifestyle patterns, move around more, and eat a healthy diet."

Sorry, that doesn't mean Oreo cookies--even those labeled zero trans fat.

TO LEARN MORE: FDA Questions and Answers About Trans Fat Nutrition Labeling

Share this with your friends