Trans fat revealed

FDA regulation helps consumer choose fats more wisely

FDA regulation helps consumer choose fats more wisely

January 16, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

A meander down a grocery store's snack food isle might inspire a few double takes these days.

In the top corner of a bag of Doritos is the phrase "0 grams trans fat." Manufacturers of cookies, snack crackers and loaves of bread also are labeling such foods as free of trans fat.

While it might seem curious to see such labels on foods that are known to contain fat, these labels are part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's mandate that, as of Jan. 1, all foods with a nutrition facts label must include information on whether the product contains trans fat.

FDA officials hope that by making trans fat information more noticeable on food product labels, consumers will be better equipped to make healthful food choices.


Of all the types of fat that are part of most people's diets, trans fat is considered to be the biggest health hazard, according to the FDA and local dietitians.

"We do believe that trans fats may even be more of a concern than the saturated fats," explains Becky Bowdoin, registered dietitian at Chambersburg Hospital in Pennsylvania.

Research results from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Cholesterol Education Program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture find that trans fat increases bad cholesterol levels and can lower good cholesterol levels. Higher levels of bad cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), can lead to coronary heart disease - one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

"We recommend that people try to eat as little as possible, foods that contain trans fats," Bowdoin says. "We don't need them in our diets."

The National Academy of Sciences also recommends that the amount of trans fat eaten be "as low as possible."

While trans fat is found naturally in small amounts in foods such as high-fat milk products and red meat, the majority of the trans fat consumed by Americans is found in snack foods such as crackers, candy, baked goods and fried foods.

Trans fat, also known as trans fatty acid, is a type of fat formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine. To transform the liquid oil into a solid, hydrogen is added. The process of "hydrogenation" increases the shelf life of processed foods and improves "flavor stability," according to information from the FDA.

Major changes in the way companies manufacture food products is a side effect of the new labeling requirement.

Although the FDA did not require food companies to reduce the amount of trans fat used in food products, many food companies have done so, including Kraft Foods Inc., Kellogg Co. and Frito-Lay Inc.

In 2003, the FDA stated its intention to require the trans fat labeling as of Jan. 1, 2006. That same year Frito-Lay stopped using hydrogenated oils, a prime source of trans fats, in its products. The company now uses alternative products - corn, cottonseed and sunflower oil - to manufacture chips and snacks.

Kraft Foods reformulated hundreds of its products to reduce or eliminate trans fats. Kraft Easy Mac, Oreo cookies, Wheat Thins crackers and Jell-O Pudding Snacks are some of the brands that were "reformulated" to be labeled as containing zero grams of trans fat per serving.

Kellogg Co. announced in December 2005 it will switch to a polyunsaturated oil to produce many of its products.

Bowdoin cautions, however, reducing or eliminating trans fat in snack foods doesn't make them health foods.

"Trans fat-free doesn't mean that they are calorie-free" or free of other forms of fat, she says. "You still want to be wise and consider the overall quality of the foods."

FDA regulation for trans fat labeling allows manufacturers to list the trans fat content as zero if there is half a gram of trans fat or less found in each serving. That means that if partially hydrogenated oil or shortening appears in a product's ingredient list, there is some trans fat in the food, although the label says zero grams.

Food such as french fries and fried chicken, which might be fried in partially hydrogenated oil, also can contain high amounts of trans fat. While nutrition information about food served in fast food restaurants is available online and often upon request, there is no requirement for restaurants to label food containing trans fat.

Bowdoin believes that more consumer awareness about trans fat and its hazards might change that.

"I suspect that we are going to start seeing fast-food companies marketing zero trans fat foods," she says. "That doesn't mean that a Big Mac is suddenly a healthy choice."

Consider these ideas to reduce the amount of trans fat in your family's diet ...

  • Substitute monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats for saturated and trans fats.

  • Try a nonstick cooking spray to coat pans instead of shortening.

  • Zero-trans fat versions of shortening and some margarines are available. Check labels.

  • When ordering food at restaurants, ask whether partially hydrogenated oils are used to prepare foods.

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