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Are you really eating food free of trans fat?

March 28, 2007|by LYNN F. LITTLE

The Food and Drug Administration requires that trans fat be listed on Nutrition Facts labels, along with saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. What is trans fat? Trans fat is made when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil - a process called hydrogenation, which increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods containing these fats.

Trans fat can be found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods and other foods made with (or fried in) partially hydrogenated oils. The majority of trans fat is formed when food manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats such as shortening and hard margarine. A small amount of trans fat is found naturally, primarily in some animal-based foods.

Trans fat, like saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, raises the LDL cholesterol that increases your risk for heart disease.

Often, food manufacturers post "Zero Trans Fat" on the front of their packages, and many consumers think that eliminates any guesswork about the presence of trans fat. It's a great selling tactic, unless you're an informed consumer. Read on. Look at the area below the Nutrition Facts label to the list of ingredients and search for the words "partially hydrogenated fat." If the Nutrition Facts label above declares zero trans fat, by law the product must contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.

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Is that a problem? It could be if you consume multiple servings and you're committed to consuming as little trans fat as possible for good heart health. There could be just a minute amount of trans fat per serving, or nearly 0.5 grams of partially hydrogenated oil, if it is listed as an ingredient. All those fractions can add up to a lot, depending on how much you eat.

The "2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans" recommend keeping trans fat consumption as low as possible; however, there is no recommended limit or Daily Value for trans fat. The American Heart Association recommends that no more than 1 percent of your total daily calories come from trans fat. For example, this means if your daily calories equaled 2,000, you should consume no more than 2 grams of trans fat.

If you consume 4 servings daily of a food that has zero trans fat but lists partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient, you might be consuming nearly 2 grams of trans fat. The good news is that if your search of the ingredient label does not show partially hydrogenated fat, you can believe the product truly is trans-fat free.

Some foods most likely to contain partially hydrogenated oil are convenience packaged foods: microwave popcorn, peanut butter, frozen foods, cookies and crackers.

If you're committed to a healthy lifestyle, you have to take the extra time to read not only the Nutrition Facts label, but also check the ingredients label and possibly search the grocery aisle for a healthier choice.

In addition, you would be wise to limit the amount and frequency of these foods in your diet.

For your heart health, take the time to minimize trans fat in your daily diet. Make a commitment to take the time to read labels and prepare more of your food at home.

Processed foods, which might contain partially hydrogenated fat, are in the middle aisles at the grocery store. If you shop the perimeter of the store where fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meats and dairy products are located, you'll spend less time reading labels and more time enjoying a heart-healthy life.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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