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Confused about trans fats? Here’s the skinny

As new regulations loom for the heart disease-inducing food ingredient, Phil Lempert brings you up to speed on the latest information.

As new regulations loom for the heart disease-inducing food ingredient, Phil Lempert brings you up to speed in the latest information

Last year, a San Francisco lawyer, Stephen Joseph, filed a lawsuit against Kraft Foods for distributing Oreos, which contain trans fats that he alleged are unhealthy for children. Joseph then dropped the suit, saying that Kraft was working on developing a cookie without trans fats.

The company kept their word, announcing last week that three new varieties of its popular cookie will now contain zero grams of trans fat per serving. Other top brands are listening, and although the new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) label requirement about trans fat does not take effect until 2006, many companies are already reformulating their products (and touting the fact on their labels).

However, in addition to having to wait two years for the official version, consumers will still face less than full information in 2006 because the new labels will not carry either a recommended allowance for the trans fats or an FDA caution suggesting that people keep their intake of trans fats as low as possible.

Here’s a guide to the trans fat controversy:

What are trans fats?
Trans fat, otherwise known as trans fatty acid, is formed when liquid vegetable oil is “hydrogenated” or turned into a solid, most commonly in the manufacture of margarine or shortening. Many food companies prefer to use trans fat instead of oil because it can reduce costs, extend a product’s storage life, and improve characteristics such as flavor and texture.

The process is to bubble hydrogen gas through vegetable oil, which changes the chemical structure, turning some of it into trans fats.

Fine so far. Eating trans fats, however, increases the risk for heart disease. Which is why the Food and Drug Administration announced last July that food labels must include the amount of trans fat in foods by January 1, 2006.

Trans fat is known to increase blood levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL), so-called "bad" cholesterol, while lowering levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL), known as "good" cholesterol.

Too much fat of any kind can be harmful. In addition, the amount of hydrogen in each type of the fat (e.g., saturated, unsaturated, trans fat) should be taken into consideration.

When the fat molecules are full of hydrogen (or saturated, hence the terminology) the fat is closest to being solid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond in their carbon chain, polyunsaturated fats have more than one double bond, and both are less harmful than saturated fats or trans fats.

Trans fats are the most complicated of the fats. They occur naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products; and also can be found in increased quantities in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

What can the consumer do?The good news is that many food companies are expected to change formulas (and their labels) before the 2006 deadline, but don’t expect them all to do so. So what can we do to avoid trans fats?

First, be sure to check the ingredient list for the words "partially hydrogenated oil" or "shortening." My suggestion is to read the label, and if these terms are listed within the first few ingredients on the label --  and if the food product contains more than 10 grams of total fat – you should probably steer clear.

For food-math wizards, you can come close to figuring out the grams of trans fats by following this formula:

  1. Add up the grams of saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat.
  2. Then, if the number is less than the total amount of fat on the label, you can assume the missing grams are trans fats.

What foods typically contain high amounts of trans fats?

  • Most margarines and shortenings
  • Processed foods
  • Deep-fried fast food, like French fries;
  • Foods that list "partially hydrogenated oils" in the ingredients, e.g. crackers, cake mixes, snack cakes, snack foods, chips, doughnuts, pie crusts, biscuits, breakfast cereals, frozen waffles, microwave popcorn, packaged cookies, and other baked and fried items.

Trans fatty acids are found in foods containing shortening, including pastries and fried foods, and in lower levels in dairy products and meats. But beware, they are hardly predictable and can turn up in places you might not expect, such as cereals and waffles.

On the other hand, potato chips, pretzels, and salad dressings, which you would think might contain trans fats, rarely do. These products are not often made with partially hydrogenated oil. Peanut butter, as another example, only contains small amounts of hydrogenated oil with, typically, only traces of trans fat.

For more information on trans fats and the “nutritional correction” that is taking place on our supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site,