Saturday, March 29, 2014
Late last year the FDA made the long-overdue statement that trans fats are not “generally recognized as safe.” Without a timeline in place to fully pull these fats out of our food supply, we as the consumers need to be aware that trace amounts of trans fats still linger in several products on the shelves.
I focus on trans fats with my cardiac patients and I find that the majority of them are unaware of hidden sources. Trans fats are man-made fats; yet another harm to our health as the result of an attempt to alter nature. Invented back in the late 1800s, trans fats made their way into the food supply with the popularity of Crisco during butter shortages around the time of WWII. But they really came in full force when the public health community campaigned for elimination of saturated fats from our foods. In response, trans fats were pumped into numerous shelf-stable products and used for frying. Why? Trans fats are derived from an otherwise healthy, unsaturated fat. Through the process of partial hydrogenation, trans fats are formed – a fat now solid at room temperature, more shelf stable and relatively inexpensive. Logically, it seemed a healthier alternative to saturated fats. Enter the Snackwell craze – fat free but full of trans fats, refined flour and sugar, and essentially devoid of any nutritional value. Read: reasons to be leery of fad diets. Many of these reformulated products received a heart healthy label for being saturated fat free! We were increasing the shelf life to already unhealthy foods. The things we learn in hindsight. It took years of scientific research to pile up and reveal that trans fats increase bad cholesterol (LDL), reduce the good cholesterol (HDL), trigger inflammation and therefore increase risk for heart disease. Trans fats may also change the size of the LDL particle making it more harmful.
To the consumer's benefit, a labeling law went into effect in 2006, requiring all products to list trans fats on the food label. This resulted in several companies voluntarily pulling trans fats out of their products. However, a loophole existed and still exists that we need to be aware of: a label can list 0 grams if per serving the amount contained is less than 0.5 grams. This goes for all listings on the food label as well. How else could a liquid butter spray have 0 grams of fat if the first ingredient in the product reads soybean oil? Trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils. If found in the ingredient list, then the product contains trans fats and should be avoided. Trace amounts add up. Surely you didn't purchase that coffee creamer to use only 1 tablespoon out of the entire container. For a measly 2 percent of calories that come from trans fats, some studies have shown heart disease risk increases by 20 percent. That is only 4 grams of a 2,000-calorie diet. So read your labels carefully. Trans fats may still be found in buttered popcorn, crackers – look at Ritz and Cheez-it packages carefully – cookie dough, frozen desserts, pie shells, frostings, sugar-free coffee creamers, biscuits and fried food from some fast food restaurants.
What can we learn from the trans-fat debacle? My thought is that we must be careful to not misuse knowledge and to not “Frankenstein” our food. Perhaps the same lesson we will learn from some of our industrial agricultural practices. Time will tell, but for now staying informed is our best defense. Either that or growing our own garden.
Lauren Zimmerman is a registered dietitian originally from Rock Hill, but has made the Old Village home over the past few years. She works in a cardiac rehabilitation center where day to day she teaches a heart healthy diet to her patients through weekly education classes and one-on-one counseling sessions. She lives and breathes healthy eating and enjoys making it practical for those she is helping. Outside of work she enjoys cooking, art, music, bike riding and seeing the ocean as frequently as possible.