Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What Is It? Trans Fat

In the third of a semi-regular series posts called "What Is It?", Kiko's House tells you everything you need to know about trans fat.

Trans fat is much in the news these days, at least in the U.S., because of its unhealthfulness. Foodmakers have rushed to drop trans fat as an ingredient and note in big, bold print on the labels of their cookies, pies and potato chips that they are “Trans Fat Free!” or have “Zero Trans Fats!”

So what the heck is trans fat, why is it harmful and are foodmakers being honest in saying that their products have been purged of it?

Trans fat exists at naturally low levels in some food, but is usually the product of a process called hydrogenation in which liquid oils are mixed with hydrogen gas to produce a substitute for butter fat and beef tallow that had a nice plasticity for baking.

Hydrogenation was the rage for many years because it was easy and cheap and the resulting trans fat was believed to be healthier than animal fats. But times change and trans fat is now considered to be the worst of the fats and far worse for the old ticker than saturated fat.

That said, we eat much more saturated fat than trans fat, so getting rid of trans fat does not guarantee a life free of heart problems. Meanwhile, under U.S. food labeling guidelines that took effect on January 1, any food with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can declare its content as having zero grams. So be aware, especially if you have gluttonous urges, that those little bits of trans fat can still add up.

One more question: When foodmakers got rid of trans fat, they had to substitute it with something else, right?


Among the substitutes are palm oil, coconut oil and stearic acid, but there is no agreement among nutritionists as to whether these are really heart helpful. Furthermore, some foodmakers have swapped out trans fat for more saturated fat, so some products actually have ended up with more total fat than they had before.

Then there are all those other bugaboos like calories, refined starch and that old standby – sugar. So being trans fat free doesn’t get you off the hook. Not by a long shot.

Sources: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Los Angeles Times.

No comments: