Artery-Clogging Trans Fats Can Hide in Plain Sight

Isthmus | February 9, 2005
hed: Trans spotting

subhed: These artery-clogging fats can hide in plain sight

By Linda Falkenstein

This story started when an alert reader called the office to suggest that a story needed to be done on the dangers of trans fats, and the difficulty of figuring out what they’re in when you’re dining out.

Trans fats. If you feel as if your head is going to explode each time you hear about yet another dietary no-no, hold on to your noggin and listen closely. Because trans fats are a weapon of mass destruction that’s easy to find.

Trans fats are lurking in graham crackers, Rice-A-Roni and even bread. And while you can purge your own kitchen shelves of the problem ingredient -- hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils -- how do you know what’s in the bun of your conscientiously-chosen veggie burger or the the crust of your pie at a restaurant?

Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils are high in trans fats (aka trans fatty acids), a type of fat that acts much like a saturated fat (like butter). However, trans fats are even more damaging than saturated fats, in that they not only increase the amount of “bad” cholestorol (LDL cholesterol), they reduce the amount of “good” cholesterol (HDL cholesterol).

It’s not news that they’re damaging to your health. But dietary activists have only recently made strides in alerting the public to where to find them and how best to avoid them. New rules regarding how trans fats are labelled in the “nutrition” box on packaged foods kick in this year -- finally. (Formerly, trans fats weren’t mentioned at all in the “Nutrition facts” box, and had to be scouted in the “ingredients” list.) But not even the new labels will clear up all the murk surrounding what oils are healthy and unhealthy.

Hydrogenation (adding hydrogen to vegetable oil) or partial hydrogenation is a process that makes liquids more solid (as when making vegetable oil into stick margarine). The more solid the resulting product, the more trans fats it holds, which is why a stick of margarine is worse for your health than most spreadable tub margarines.

Trans fats increase the risk of heart disease. They raise the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. They’re one culprit behind the increasing American obesity rate. One Harvard study indicated a link between high trans fat levels and risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Even so, the public has remained blithe about the dangers of trans fats. Part of the problem is that hydrogenated oils are so pervasive in prepared and convenience foods. With products as basic as cake mixes, peanut butter, hot cocoa mix, and even Saltines, a quick check of the ingredients reveals “partially hydrogenated oil.” They’re in everything from my favorite stone-ground cracker from the shelves of the co-op to Honey-Maid graham crackers.

If you think you’ll be better off cooking from scratch, remember that stick margarine, which many cooks use instead of butter thinking it’s healthier, contains partially hydrogenated oil. Substitutions can include butter, though opinions differ on whether it’s a much healthier choice, because butter is high in saturated fat.

In response to greater consumer demand for the elimination of trans fats, Frito-Lay switched to corn oil to eliminate trans fats from Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos. Crisco introduced a Zero Trans Fat Shortening that’s made from a patented blend of sunflower, soy, and cottonseed oils and “contains zero grams of trans fat per serving with no increase in saturated fat,” according to a company press release. Its saturated fat content is 50% less saturated fat than butter.

It’s not that difficult to clear your own kitchen cupboards of products containing hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oil once you start inspecting labels, although if you start peering at labels while shopping, you’ll spend a lot more time at the grocery store-- and leave with many different products than you’re used to buying. The new food labelling laws that will be phased into effect this year should make it easier for consumers to determine what oils and fats are in their food, although the question of which are the healthiest substitutions still needs to be weighed.

In the meantime, some switches you can make include pretzels for potato chips, and bran cereals for some “natural” granolas, which can be loaded with trans fats. Make your own cookies, with butter or the new Crisco, or look for store-bought brands with no hydrogenated oils, like Newman O’s or Voortmans. (See sidebar.)

While it’s important to reduce your intake of trans fatty acids, “getting it down to zero is unrealistic,” says Susan Nitzke, professor of nutritional sciences at the UW-Madison. She recommends looking at the USDA’s 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report and its findings (see resources). “A good goal would be 1% of calories or less, which is still quite strict.”

Although Nitzke underlines that trans fatty acid intake “should be kept as low as possible,” she urges those concerned about transfats to see the issue in perspective. “It doesn’t make a darn bit of difference for the calorie content, and for most Americans, the public health issue we need to concentrate on is getting our activity level up and calorie level within a range that’s not going to make us gain weight.”

Paying attention to your intake of saturated fats (hardened vegetable shortening, lard, butter, beef tallow, and some vegetable-based sources like coconut and some kinds of palm oil) is at least as important as watching your trans fats, if not more, says Nitzke, because there are more of them in our food supply.

She suggests that substituting butter for margarine in cookies and pie crusts is not really a solution. Again, Nitzke encourages consumers to see trans fats in context. “I don’t know how often you make cookies, but I don’t make cookies very often. So spending a lot of time trying to decide what kind of shortening I’m going to buy for the cookies I make two times a year may not be the best use of [my] time.”

Nitzke recommends avoiding the biggest sources of trans fats in the American diet, “cookies and crackers and chips,” and “getting yourself into reading labels on convenience items. That can go a long way.”

She also offers the following rules of thumb:

If you have a choice, go for the oil that is most liquid. If the flavor is appropriate, use olive oil or canola oil, which are higher in mono-unsaturated fats, considered good fats.

Until food labelling becomes more helpful, avoid items that mention both “hydrogenated” and “partially hydrogenated” oils: “You can’t really tell [the level of trans fatty acids] from the words. If the label says either, it’s a clue that there may be trans fatty acids present.”

Nitzke feels that the new labelling requirements will not only help the consumer identify ingredients, but be an “incentive for manufacturers to reduce the trans fatty acid content as a low as they can get it.”

What about dining out? A grassroots project in Tiburon, California, got all of that city’s 18 restaurants to use trans-fat-free cooking oil for frying, a fact they now proudly label on their windows. In most cities, things are more complicated.

If you are trying to reduce your intake of trans fats to reduce risk of heart disease, ask at a restaurant if their frying oil is “a hydrogenated vegetable product, and if it is hydrogenated in a way to reduce trans fatty acids,” Nitzke suggests. “If they have made an effort to buy that kind of frying fat, they’ll have a reason to want to brag to their customers about it.”

Restaurants have “dozens of different [oil] blends available, put together for specific products,” and some have practically no trans fatty acids, she adds.

However, “Don’t be fooled into thinking that asking what kind of fat your potatoes are fried in is going to give you any more permission to eat a large quantity of those potatoes,” Nitzke warns.

Some health pamphlets offer the basic advice to avoid fast food and choose Italian, Greek, Spanish and other Mediterranean restaurants, which more frequently use olive oil. But if you’re really curious, don’t be afraid to ask.

Some bakeries and restaurants use hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils or shortening when baking cookies, buns and breads. Ask about ingredients, although you may not receive readily satisfactory answers -- “soybean oil” can be partially hydrogenated or not, for example. And “regular vegetable shortening” could mean a number of things. Also, ingredients can vary, even from product to product at the same establishment.


Ban Trans Fats

Product news, info on new labelling laws, and legal actions.

How to Pick a Breakfast Cereal

How to Avoid Partially Hydrogenated Fats

Dr. Mirkin finds the devil in the details.

Trans Fats in Food: Which, and How Much?

University of Maryland Medical Center

Some common products and their trans fat contents, better menu ideas

USDA 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report

Everything you always wanted to know....


Saying it doesn’t make it so

*McDonalds made headlines in September, 2002, when it announced that it would introduce an improved cooking oil that would reduce trans fats in its fried foods by 48%. The changeover was supposed to be made by February of 2003, but still has not taken place. Yet the public perception is that McDonalds made the switch to healthier oil.

A California nonprofit, BanTransFats, is suing McDonalds over this failure, claiming that the company has “deliberately allowed the public to be misled” and has spent only $457.50 to alert the public that it has not changed its oil. The lawsuit asks McDonald’s to inform its customers about its failure to make the change and to finally change its oil.

* Newman-Os, the organic Oreo lookalike that Newman’s Own labels as containing no hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils and no trans fatty acids (true), are made with palm oil, which critics assert is also conducive to heart disease. Palm oil has a high percentage of saturated and mono-unsaturated fats. Other Newman’s Own products (popcorn, Fig Newmans) are also made with palm oil.

* Enova, the new cooking oil you may have seen advertised on television recently, bills itself as a healthy oil that will “help you maintain a healthy weight.” It’s made via a process that changes the structure of the fat so that the body burns it as energy rather than stores it as fat. However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)’s December 2004 opinion on Enova indicates that "the level of trans fatty acids is high (4 %)" and that "in order for it [Enova] not to be nutritionally disadvantageous for consumers, the trans fatty acid content should be reduced to the level in conventional vegetable oils. Vegetable oils and liquid margarines have a low proportion of TFA, usually below 1 %." Enova has hidden its trans fat content on its product label and does not mention trans fats in its promotional material. Attempts by Isthmus to contact Enova to clarify this issue were not answered. Enova is a product of Archer Daniels Midland.

-- L.F.


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