Sunday, April 13, 2014

What NOT to eat: Trans Fat

[This post was prompted by the movie "The Help." There is a great scene on the magic of Crisco. As funny as that scene is, I suggest you do not follow Minnie's advice. Though Crisco has been reformulated to greatly reduce trans fat, it still contains some.]

There are very few absolutes in diet. You can get away with eating a little bit of "bad" foods with no ill effects (remember, I said a little bit). But, what if you don't know how much you are eating? This is the story with trans fat (more specifically industrially produced trans fatty acids). Partially hydrogenated trans fat is a creation of chemists. Solid fats and liquid fats are very different, cooking-wise. Partial hydrogenation is a way of turning a naturally (mostly) unsaturated fat such as soybean oil into something that acts like a saturated fat. Think Crisco. Great for frying and making pie crusts. Also great for many processed foods, everything from crackers to chewing gum. For many years, margarine was a leading source of trans fat, the thinking being it was better than the saturated fat in butter. Unfortunately, this turned out to be far from the truth. Partially hydrogenated fats are particularly bad for your cardio-vascular health.

By 2008, packaged foods in the US were labeled with their trans fat content, though the information on nutrition labels is incomplete. We should eat 0 g of artificial trans fat, but foods with less than 0.5 g can be labeled as 0 g. Which means, you can get a non-trivial amount of trans fat eating foods that are labeled as trans fat free.

But, if it isn't on the nutrition label, how can you know if it has trans fat in it? Read the ingredients - anything with partially hydrogenated (whatever) oil contains trans fat that you do not want to be eating. Since many foods that you might eat daily (think sandwich bread, margarine, fast food, ramen noodles, cookies, microwave popcorn, and frozen dinners) may contain little amounts, it starts to add up. Read the labels.

The FDA is planning to revoke partially hydrogenated oils' Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) status. That would mean you could stop looking at ingredient lists. But, don't expect this to happen fast, sadly. The food industry is already rallying the troops.

Photo Attributed to: Chemical Heritage Foundation [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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