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In general, food manufacturers employ three basic techniques to retain the taste, texture and shelf life of reformulated trans fat-free foods. One option is to use tropical oils, like palm and coconut, as a substitute. While these oils do not include trans fat, they do contain lots of saturated fat, which has a similar effect: raising LDL cholesterol levels.
Manufacturers also utilize interesterified oils as a trans-fat replacement. These customized blends combine a highly saturated fat and a liquid oil to create a product that looks and acts very much like trans fat. Unfortunately, some of the trans fat-free margarines, pastries, cookies and other products made from interesterified oils actually contain substantially higher levels of saturated fat than the original trans-fat version. In the end, rather than making a healthier product, many food manufacturers are asking consumers to choose the lesser of two evils.
Finally, plant breeding (or genetic engineering) can produce vegetable oils that are naturally more stable and thus require less hydrogenation. While the genetically modified oils born from this process can be more healthful than the original, this is not always the case. For example, breeding plants to reduce the polyunsaturated fat in canola oil removes some healthful omega-3 fat that is one of the nutritional bonuses of using the oil to begin with.
For now, don’t automatically assume anything labeled “no trans fat” must be healthy. Check the label for both trans fat and saturated fat content. Remember, too, that being “trans fat-free” does not change the sugar and calorie load of many processed foods.
—Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research