Blamed as a key dietary culprit in causing heart disease, trans fats are getting kicked all the way to the curb. Best Food Facts Nutrition Advisor, Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD, dishes up insight from nutrition experts on the issue of trans fats.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s proposed plan to remove artificial trans fats from the list of additives “generally recognized as safe” means food manufacturers and restaurants will have to ramp up efforts to take trans fat completely off the menu.
“Banning trans fats should help consumers believe that when it says trans fat free, it indeed is free of the unhealthy fat,” says Atlanta registered dietitian Kathleen Zelman, Nutrition Director for WebMD.
Artificial trans fats are created when vegetable oils are hydrogenated to make solid fats such as stick margarine or commercial cake frosting. They’re found in frying oils, coffee creamers, baked goods, microwave popcorn and tortilla chips.
The trouble with trans fats is that while they increase the shelf life and palatability of many foods, they decrease the shelf life of people who eat them. In a double whammy dietary hit, trans fats cause bad cholesterol levels (LDL) to rise and good cholesterol levels (HDL) to fall.
“Scientific evidence has shown us that consumption of artificial trans fats through processed foods is a direct contributor to coronary heart disease, which often results in stroke and heart attack,” said registered dietitian Dr. Glenna McCollum, President of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Get The Trans Fat Out
Many restaurant chains and food manufacturers have already reformulated their products to be trans fat free. For instance, coffee giant Starbucks said in 2007 that it would stop selling items made with artificial trans fats and in 2008 Burger King switched the oil in its deep fryers to one that was trans fat free. Long John Silver's announced in August that it would switch completely to non-trans fat oils by the end of the year.
“In addition, many restaurants today provide nutrition information, including trans fat, via their websites,” says registered dietitian Joy Dubost of the National Restaurant Association.
According to the FDA, since trans fat content was added to Nutrition Facts labels in 2006, intake among Americans has declined from 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to about 1 gram per day in 2012.
Dining Out Without Trans Fats
But what about dining out where there's no nutrition information? "Unfortunately, when we dine in restaurants it's not realistic to go into the kitchen and read ingredients labels to search for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats," says registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix.
Atlanta registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Marisa Moore, offers this smart advice: "Opt for healthier options like roasted vegetables instead of fries. And be mindful of foods that we tend to forget are fried like sesame or sweet and sour chicken Chinese takeout. Opt instead for the chicken and broccoli." She adds, "Truthfully, many of the foods that may have trans fats - fried foods, cakes, pies and, yes, biscuits - are not very healthy to start, so aim to eat them less often."
Trans Fat Free Can Be Tricky
Trans fat free does not mean calorie free. And, some trans fat free foods aren't totally heart healthy, because they contain saturated fats instead. For instance, one White Fudge Covered Oreo cookie contains zero trans fat but 3.5 grams of saturated fats. Zelman warns, “Trans fats are being replaced with saturated fats like palm and palm kernel oil that help maintain the texture in some products like cookies. These saturated fats need to be limited to 7-10% of calories, but are considered a better choice than trans fats.”
Jane Andrews, registered dietitian with Wegmans supermarkets, says the FDA must be confident that the fats chosen to replace partially hydrogenated oils are no worse for health. “We’ve been removing trans fats from our products since 1991 when we first switched from partially hydrogenated soybean oil to liquid soybean oil in breads and rolls. However, some products have presented challenges in that either the quality or the healthfulness of the products has suffered. We keep re-working formulas until the product meets both goals: improved nutrition and great quality,” says Andrews.
So avoiding trans fats can be tricky, but there’s a powerful change in motion brought on by a consensus of opinions that these bad boys have got to go followed by innovative efforts to reformulate many of our favorite foods to be healthier and just as delicious.
Noted nutrition expert, award winning food journalist and television personality, and Best Food Facts advisor, Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian. Carolyn’s refreshing food philosophy and recommendations are captured in this column to help you, Eat Better for Life!
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