Trans Fat Phantoms
How companies hide trans fats in everyday foods.
All I wanted were some crackers for a party. Nothing special, just a little something for people to snack on. Of course, I wanted to make sure the ones I bought had some nutritional value, so I read the labels and started making comparisons.
There were crackers with lower salt. Others boasted higher fiber. Still others had fewer calories. The packages were full of claims to make them appear that eating a cracker could be a healthy thing.
I decided on a couple of brands and was just about to put them in my cart, when something strange caught my eye. Below the nutritional information, in the list of ingredients, I saw something that shouldn't have been there.
"Partially Hydrogenated Oils" on one and "shortening" on the other.
Now, unless you're a nutritionist, or a fitness junkie, that probably doesn't mean anything to you. But what it means is that hidden inside those crackers was the most dangerous type of fat ever invented—Trans fat.
It's terrible for two reasons. Trans fat RAISES your levels of "bad" cholesterol while DECREASING your HDL or "good" cholesterol. Those two effects are primary risks of developing heart disease.
It didn't make sense. I had read the nutrition label and it said "Trans Fat - 0." If there were zero trans fats in them, how could trans fats be on the ingredient list?
Simple. Nutritional loopholes.
The first loophole is because the new regulation forcing food companies to list trans fat on the label didn't take effect until January 1, 2006. Obviously, the United States Government knew it would take a few months for the new labels to make it out from the factories to the stores, so whatever was in the distribution system would be exempt. Never mind that the new labeling requirements had been known for over a year before they took effect, more than enough time to get properly labeled food into your local supermarket.
The second loophole is for companies that have an existing stock of labels. (Yes, labels!) Rather than force the food companies to throw away all the nice and misleading labels, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows companies to use up the old labels first. Almost two years after trans fats are supposed to be listed on every packaged food, there are still companies churning out packages without any mention of their trans fat contents. That's because they have an inventory of old labels that they get to use up.
The last loophole is the most insidious. According to the nutrition label guidelines, zero doesn't always mean zero. The FDA states that, if trans fat is 0.5 g or less per serving, it can be shown as zero on the nutritional label.
You might be wondering, "What's the big deal? How can less than half a gram of fat per serving be a problem?" It wouldn't matter if you were talking about a 500-calorie meal, but it becomes huge when that half a gram of fat is in 5 crackers, or a single teaspoon of butter. Multiply that half a gram by how many crackers you actually eat, or teaspoons of butter you really use on your food, and suddenly it's a very big deal.
You could be eating as many as 10-20 grams of trans fat every day. Remember, trans fats are so bad for your health, the National Institute of Medicine said that there are NO safe levels of trans fats in the diet. Zero. And they don't mean less than .5 grams per serving zero.
You can protect yourself. When you want to buy foods that typically harbor trans fats, look at the ingredient list. Trans fats are most often found in crackers, fried foods, cakes, muffins and pastries. You probably shouldn't be eating a lot of these foods anyway. But if you do, and you see the words "partially hydrogenated oil" or "shortening" on the ingredient list, put it back on the shelf and choose another brand.
Don't worry; the trans-fat-free versions taste just as good. In blind taste tests, people couldn't tell the difference. You aren't giving up taste, just a greater risk of heart attack.
UPDATE: In 2013, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called Long John Silver's Big Catch basket the worst restaurant meal in America. It has a stunning 33 grams of trans fat per serving!
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