This Nutrition Hotline concerns trans fats, including their impact on cholesterol levels, their place on nutrition labels, and steps you can take to lower your trans fats consumption.
QUESTION: “Should I be concerned about the level of trans fats in my diet, and how can I identify and avoid them?”
ANSWER: Trans fats are bad news. They’re found in tens of thousands of food products, including many foods commonly eaten by vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. This year, the FDA announced a new rule requiring food companies to list the amount of trans fat in their products on food labels.
Trans fats are created when vegetable oil is hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, a process that converts liquid oils into solid or semi-solid forms used in shortening and some margarines, including stick-style soy margarines.
Commercial cakes, cookies, pies, and pastries are loaded with trans fats because hydrogenated oils make baked goods seem fresher and increase product shelf lives. In addition, trans fats are used in peanut butter and in fast-food French fries, fried apple pies, and other fried foods. They also occur naturally in whole milk dairy products, such as butter, sour cream, cheese, and ice cream.
Research shows that trans fats—in addition to saturate fats—raise levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, and lower levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol, increasing the risk of coronary artery disease.
For more than five years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been considering how to reword food labels to alert consumers to the presence of trans fats. The new rule requires food companies to list trans fats on the same line on the Nutrition Facts panel with saturated fats, an idea that made sense, given that they both have similar effects on our arteries.
In fact, the American Heart Association in 2000 published guidelines recommending that the total of all cholesterol raising fats—both trans and saturated—not exceed 10 percent of a person’s daily calorie intake.
However, an Institute of Medicine report last summer complicated matters when it concluded that there is no safe level of intake of trans fat (as well as saturated fat) since even the smallest amount increases the risk of coronary artery disease.
The new rule falls short of recommendations by consumer advocates, who wanted to see the trans fat listing on food labels tied to the phrase, “Intake of trans fat should be as low as possible.”
The food industry is not in favor of this cautionary language. The Wall Street Journal quoted a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers as stating, “The food label is a place for quantitative information. Its purpose is not to provide nutritional counseling.” Food industry groups say that more research is needed to assess consumer response to such a warning.
In the meantime, Canada has moved ahead and become the first country to require trans fat labeling on foods. Canadian labels may also include the claim, “A diet low in saturated fat and trans fat may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
Food companies in the United States have until January 2006 to comply with the new rule. So, it may be some time yet before American consumers know how much trans fat their groceries contain.
To minimize your intake of trans fats, be sure to:
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Thanks to volunteer Stephanie Schueler for converting this article to HTML.
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