Nutrition facts labels to spotlight trans fats
MS, RD, LD
Trans fats are coming soon to a label near you. For years we have been told to limit the amount of saturated fat in our diets because it raises “bad” LDL-cholesterol levels in our bodies. To help us, nutrition facts labels have specified saturated fats in the fat content portion of labels. Saturated fats are mostly animal fats that are solid at room temperature, but trans fats have been lurking, undeclared up to now.
Trans fats are found mostly in man-made solid fats, such as when vegetable oils are hardened (hydrogenated) to improve the shelf life of baked goods and for frying. Typically, the harder the fat, the less likely it is to become rancid, and the longer the product stays moist and fresh tasting. Cookies, chips, crackers, shortening, margarines, pastries, and fried foods are the biggest sources of trans fats because they are made with partially hydrogenated fats.
Many experts consider trans fats to be at least as damaging to the heart as saturated fat, maybe more so. In July 2003, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to require companies to list the amount of trans fat on nutrition labels, just under the saturated fat line. Adding the two will give consumers an idea of the amount of unhealthy fat the product contains. The FDA hopes that this will spur us to make healthier choices and encourage companies to reformulate. There is no limit set, we are simply advised to eat as little as possible.
Food manufacturers are given until 2006 to phase
in changes. Some will certainly begin implementing changes much sooner so they
can gain a marketing edge with their new “healthier” product. Meanwhile,
consider these ways to limit your intake of trans fats:
- Eat fewer calories from high-fat, low-nutrient foods such as cookies, crackers and chips.
Choose these types of foods less often or in smaller portion size.
- Look for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” on the
list of ingredients, and note how close it is to the top of the list.
This is a clue there is trans fat in the product and how much. Choose products with lower total fat, less saturated fat, and less partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
- If the label—such as on margarine—breaks out the fat into polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fat, add them up.
If the total is less than the total fat listed on the label, the difference is trans fat. Use that information to make healthier choices.
Choices abound in margarines and “spreads,” but look for more to appear. As a rule, the softer a spread, the more heart healthy it is because the proportion of vegetable oil to partially hydrogenated oil is greater. Some amount of saturated fats and trans fats is usually used to make margarine solid at room temperature. Diet margarines typically add water to cut calories.
A few margarines already are formulated without trans fat and will proudly say so on the label. For those needing to lower their cholesterol, two brands contain plant stanols, which can lower LDL cholesterol by 9 percent to 20 percent if two or three servings are consumed per day.