When you see a food labeled “zero trans fat,” can you automatically assume it’s a better choice?
Not so fast. As food manufacturers rush to remove trans fat-laden products from grocery shelves, many companies are substituting equally unhealthy ingredients to retain the flavor and texture of the original products.
Americans consume the majority of their trans fat from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in the form of commercial baked goods and snack foods, French fries and other deep-fried foods, and stick margarines and shortening. Without question, trans fat from hydrogenated vegetable oil is unhealthy. The hydrogenation process, which hardens the liquid oil to a spreadable consistency, prevents the fat from becoming rancid too quickly and extends its shelf life; however, it also changes the chemical structure of the fat to one that raises “bad” LDL cholesterol and reduces “good” HDL cholesterol. Some research suggests it may also increase blood markers of inflammation, potentially raising your risk of developing cancer.
Public health concerns about the negative effects of trans fat have become so robust that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now requires foods’ trans-fat content to be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. In response, many companies have reformulated their products, resulting in an army of “trans fat-free” offerings that now fill the aisles at grocery stores across the country.
But are these foods truly free of all trans fat?
In fact, no. According to FDA labeling regulations, as long as one standard serving of a food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, a food manufacturer can market the amount as zero. So, while a serving of three cookies with 0.4 g of trans fat can legally declare itself trans fat-free, eating nine cookies would mean consuming 1.2 g of trans fat when you were expecting none. This may not sound like much, but compare these figures to recommendations to limit trans fat to less than 1% of total calories (2 g daily for a 2,000-calorie diet).
Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion of this article.
—Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research