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Healing Kitchen

The Phantom Fat
Since 1994, consumer advocate groups have petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to revise labeling regulations on nutrition labels to reflect trans fatty acid content in foods. The FDA issued a statement on November 12, 1999 recommending the creation of a new nutrient content claim on food labels to do just that. In addition to listing the trans fatty acids the labels would indicate when trans fats have been combined with saturated fats; which is a particularly unhealthy combination. The proposed rule would also allow manufacturers to use a "trans fat free" label for foods that will contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. As an extended benefit of the new labels, products calling themselves low in saturated fat, low in cholesterol, "lean" and "extra lean" would also have to be low in trans fat.

The new label will allow the consumer to know more about what is in a food product and will also encourage informed decision making regarding diet and health. According to Walter Willett, MD, Dr.PH, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, and Chairman of the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, "Trans fats have been hidden from the consumer because they are not included in the current food label. Because they are at least twice as dangerous as saturated fat on a gram-for-gram basis, consumers wishing to make healthy food choices need to have this information."

    The proposed new label would contain:
     an asterisk to indicate that trans fat is included.  a listing for saturated fat that includes the amount of trans fat added to the amount of saturated fat. A footnote to indicate how many grams are in each serving.

What are Trans Fatty Acids?
Trans fatty acids are formed during partial hydrogenation--a process in which hydrogen is added to unsaturated fats to transform them from a liquid state to a solid and stable form at room temperature. (This hydrogenation process is what is used, for example, to take vegetable oil and turn it into a solid margarine.) While some trans fatty acids occur naturally in some foods, most trans fatty acids are derived from this hydrogenation process. Although hydrogenated fats may prevent rancidity, and thus extend the shelf-life of such foods as doughnuts, crackers, potato chips, and cookies, the trans fatty acids in these foods may actually shorten the "shelf-life" of the humans that consume them.

Trans Fatty Acids and Heart Disease
Consumption of trans fatty acids has created concern among health professionals who are worried about the deleterious effects of these hydrogenated fats on blood cholesterol levels. An article published in The New England Journal of Medicine in July 24, 1999, compared different types of dietary fats on serum lipoprotein levels. The authors showed a correlation between high trans fat intake and high total cholesterol levels; and they concluded that the consumption of products low in trans fatty acids and saturated fats have beneficial effects on cholesterol levels. According to lead author of the study, Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein, Professor, the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, "Trans fatty acids should be treated similarly to saturated fatty acids, with respect to both labeling and dietary advice. The message should be clear and simple, reduce the intake of both. By providing the consumer with one value on the label (saturated plus trans fatty acids) the current FDA proposal fulfills this goal."

Fat Check
Go easy on foods high in trans and saturated fatty acids. Examine food labels carefully; if, among the first few ingredients, the words "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" appear, there's probably a significant amount of trans fat in that product. Naturally, when the new labels are in effect, you should be able to tell at a glance the trans fat content of food. Unfortunately, much of the trans fatty acids consumed in this country are consumed in the form of fast food. And although the fast food chains do provide nutritional analysis for their products, most people don't take the trouble to seek out this information.

Do You Need an Oil Change?
If you find that you are consuming foods that are high in trans fatty acids (and saturated fats), try both cutting down the total amount of these high-fat foods and also substituting fats that are low in saturated fats. For example, whenever possible, use olive oil, canola, flaxseed, walnut, or soybean oils instead of butter or margarine. If you do use margarine, use soft spreadable tub-style margarine as opposed to the stick kind as they contain fewer or no trans fats: The more solid a margarine is (as in stick margarines), the more hydrogenated the fats, unless it is specifically labeled as free of trans fat (there are some new trans fat-free spreads in stick form on the market).

Author: Maureen Mulhern-White
Date Published: 03/17/2000
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