Sneaky risk: Trans fats hidden in yummy places

By Brooke Lefferts

The Food and Drug Administration wants to significantly limit trans fats in our food. Trans fats — partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) found in many processed foods — are linked to thousands of heart deaths a year, the government agency said Thursday.

Trans fats are found in fried foods, many breakfast foods, frozen pizza and a variety of desserts. But that's not all — many seemingly healthy snacks like microwave popcorn, crackers and coffee creamer also contain artificial trans fats that can damage your heart. Trans fats — ingredients used since the 1950s to increase shelf-life and flavor of baked and frozen foods — are so bad for your heart that Harvard scientists estimate they were responsible for tens of thousands of coronary heart disease events per year. 

With the FDA's proposal Thursday that trans fats be removed from foods, the agency is saying there's no safe limit. 

And that's the problem, says NBC diet and health editor Madelyn Fernstrom. FDA regulations allow a food to be labeled trans-fat free if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams per standard serving, Fernstrom explains. 

"But many people consume two or three times a serving, which can boost the total trans-fat intake above this 'trans fat free' labeling cut-off," Fernstrom said. "Because a variety of packaged and processed foods contain these unlabeled — but detectable — amounts of trans fat, people who eat a lot of these foods over a day may unknowingly be consuming many more trans fats than they realize."

Some products that contain trans fats are obvious, but others may surprise you.

A new FDA proposal would require food makers to gradually phase out artificial trans fats. The change could potentially prevent thousands of heart deaths a year, the government agency says.ROBERT SULLIVAN / Today

Fried food
Right now, most restaurants don’t tell customers the amount of trans fats in their food. If the FDA recommendations are approved, it will take a while for manufacturers and restaurants to make necessary changes, but foods such as French fries and breaded chicken and fish may soon taste different because of reformulated ingredients. 

A snack you may think is healthy can actually contain trans fats that put your heart at risk, like microwave popcorn, some crackers and chips.

Many frozen desserts contain trans fats for better flavor and a longer shelf life. Cookies, doughnuts, muffins, cake mixes and icing also contain the partially hydrogenated oils the FDA says are unsafe.

Margarine and shortening
Although margarine was once touted as a healthy alternative to butter, its trans fats make it a nutrition no-no. Despite the selection of healthy oils available, many still use shortening for baking and cooking, which are high in trans fats.  

Breakfast foods
Although some cereals containing oats and bran are marketed as healthful, they also saddle you with trans fats. Energy bars and even some granola can include trans fats in their ingredients.  

New York registered dietitian Elisa Zied says increased awareness of the health dangers has led to the FDA crackdown on levels of trans fats in food. 

“This is a wake-up call to consumers to get back to basics, choose as many whole, fresh foods as possible, and read nutritional labels and the ingredients list to try to maintain a healthy diet,” says Zied, author of the new book, “Younger Next Week,“ about eating healthy and managing stress for women.