The top ten food additives to avoid: number 9 trans fat

Posted by
March 4, 2014

transfatspizza

If you’ve been half-listening to the news the past few months, you might be under the impression that the FDA has tackled this trans fat problem once and for all. Finally, it seemed this killer was being reigned in and outlawed. (Whew, that’s one less thing to be checking labels for.)

Well, one day that may be true. But for now, it’s still in food. Lots of foods. So even though things sound promising, for this Read Your Labels Day 2014, trans fat are still very much on the list!

Top ten additives to avoid: Number 9, trans fat (as in partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that if people in the U.S. cut this stuff out of their diets it would prevent over 20,000 heart attacks and more than 7,000 deaths a year from coronary disease, while a study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated the heart-damaging toll from this ingredient is over 200,000 “events” a year.

The best part of banishing this heart-disease-promoting ingredient from your menu is that you won’t miss it one iota. But in order to do so, you need to ignore both claims that a product doesn’t have any and what appears on the “Nutrition Facts” label, and go directly to the list of ingredients.

By now everyone – doctors, registered dieticians, government authorities, health officials –  everyone agrees that trans fats are really, really bad for you.  Not only do they increase LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, but they decrease your “good”  HDL cholesterol. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, studies have shown that people with the highest blood levels of trans fats are at much greater risk of developing certain cancers. So why are there still trans fats in processed foods?

One reason is that partially hydrogenated oils containing trans fats are cheaper and easier for food manufacturers to use. But the main advantage these highly processed oils provide to the food industry is the way they keep pastries, breads, cookies, crackers and other baked goods from going rancid, allowing them to remain on store shelves longer than they ordinarily would. In other words, they increase a product’s “shelf life” even while quite possibly shortening the life of the consumer who buys it.

Besides bakery items, this industrially-created oil can often be found in frozen or refrigerated products such as French fries, pizza, dough, pies and cakes as well as in many of the items served in restaurants, including fried foods, pies, cakes and salad dressings.

Now you might think that checking the Nutrition Facts label, which has required trans fat labeling since 2006, would be the easiest way to avoid this artery-clogging substance. Think again. Current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations allow manufacturers to claim there are “zero trans fats” on the Nutrition Facts label as long as the amount is under 0.5 grams per serving (an amount that varies from product to product and is usually much less than you think). Let’s say you eat three servings of a food that claims to have zero trans fats, but in fact has 0.4 – just under the amount required to be labeled. Without realizing it, you’ve just consumed 1.6. grams of trans fats (or more, if your portion size was bigger than what the serving size is on the label).

A well-rounded zero

Some manufacturers play the zero trans fat game with an interesting twist in logic. Pillsbury’s refrigerated pizza crust product, for example, that contains partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil has a happy label statement in a yellow circle of “0g Trans Fat.” But next to the hydrogenated oil is a little asterisk that sends us to a note at the bottom of the ingredient list that says, “adds a trivial amount of trans fat.”  So is it zero or is it “trivial?” And what exactly is Pillsbury’s idea of trivial? The only thing we know for sure is it’s under 0.5 grams per serving or they couldn’t put that big zero on the package.

(One of the more interesting facts about trans fats is that at one time they were considered healthier than the saturated fats found in dairy products such as butter or in meat. Then in the 1990s researchers started identifying the adverse health effects of consuming trans fats, but by this time they were entrenched in the food supply, and it has only been recently that food manufacturers have begun removing them to some degree.)

Trans fat-free zones?

In 2007, New York City Mayor Bloomberg followed through with his phaseout of trans fats in the city’s restaurants by banning them from serving foods containing over 0.5 grams. But that prohibition carries the exact same “zero trans fats” labeling loophole that the FDA has allowed in supermarket foods. So while the New York City “ban,” along with similar ones in places like Philadelphia and Boston may have reduced the amount of trans fats consumed by restaurant patrons, it by no means has banned them, as a much smaller city is now attempting to do.

On January 1st, the Boston suburb of Chelsea, Massachusetts was poised to be the first city in the nation to have a complete ban on trans fats in packaged and restaurant foods sold there. Not the 0.5 grams allowed in Boston and other locations, but nada – absolutely zero.

Unfortunately, this groundbreaking achievement was postponed, perhaps due to heavy pressure from industry, especially the National Restaurant Association, whose representative was quoted as saying the group was “encouraged” by the delay, which will “allow the industry to provide additional perspective.”

The Chelsea ban, which will be reconsidered by the city’s board of health later this month, would certainly be a strong message to “industry,” to get off the corporate couch and stop selling foods that considerably reduce a consumer’s “shelf life.”

But why wait, when you can institute your own trans fat ban right in your own home?  All it will require is a moment to read the ingredient label before you allow a product to enter.

Coming next: the carcinogenic additive in your chips and cereal.