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By - Zonya Foco, RD, CHFI, CSP
Have you heard the news? Removing trans fats from the industrial food supply could prevent tens of thousands of premature heart attacks and cardiac deaths each year in the U.S., according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Wageningen University.
Partial hydrogenation of oils is the biggest food processing disaster in U.S. history, says Walter Willett, M.D., Harvard Nutrition Researcher. Trans fats appear to deliver a "quadruple whammy."
And Tommy Thompson, former HHS Secretary, gave the following warning to consumers in July 2003: Trans fats are bad fats. The less trans fat you and I eat, the healthier we will be.
WOW!! How did we get into this trans fat death trap?
It all began back in the 1930s, when butter became expensive and scarce. Scientists discovered how to make an inexpensive replacement – margarine – by partially adding hydrogen to vegetable oil so it became solid and spreadable like butter. This was such an instant success that the process was soon used for making shortening. Food manufactures loved it! It was inexpensive, offered a wonderfully long shelf life and tasted GREAT. Partially hydrogenated fats made perfect doughnuts, French fries, crackers, desserts, pie crusts, you name it. Life was good for food manufacturers, and happy consumers everywhere had a convenient solution to their expensive butter problem.
By 1970 (40 years later), it became known to the FDA that partially hydrogenated fats were causing heart disease. But how could they pull this product off the shelves or sound an alarm when partially hydrogenated fat had made its way into 40,000 food products? The ISEO (Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils) effectively muted the debate about trans fats for years, and by the year 2002, Americans were averaging at least 12 grams of trans fat a day.
Thirty-Six Years Later: The FDA sticks a toe in
Finally by January 2006, thanks to consumer action groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the FDA began requiring that all food products include trans fat content on their labels. The agency stated that as long as a product has .5 grams of trans fat or less per serving, the label can say "zero grams of trans fat per serving." (Canada's limit is .3 grams.) Of course this wasn't a ban, but a gentle nudge for manufacturers to find an alternative fat if they didn't want their product to "look bad" in the eye's of label-savvy consumers. This was a positive step, and many margarine companies and Nabisco Oreos, Pepperidge Farm Gold Fish, Frito Lay chips did indeed step up to the plate and reduced their trans fats enough to sport "zero grams per serving" on their labels.
An improvement, yes. But still not a gold star
Even though the use of trans fats is being drastically reduced in many food products, there are three very important points every consumer must know in order to protect themselves:
The Bottom Line for You
So how do you keep your intake of trans fats as low as possible while making sure too many saturated fats don't creep up in its place? Don't throw your hands up in despair. Here are a few tactics that will help keep your "fat check" in line.
In a nutshell, follow what I call the one-two punch: First keep fat intake to as low as possible, then add back the good omega three fats like olive oil on your salad or walnuts in your cereal. Works like a charm!
Don't ignore the giant elephant in the room
Remember, while everyone's captivated by the latest trans fat headline, "Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken change their frying oil to trans fat free," don't be suckered into overlooking the giant elephant in the room – unhealthy habits. Trans fats or not, Americans eat too many calories by the way of too much fat, sugar and refined carbohydrates and don't eat enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And most of us don't get near enough physical activity. Getting rid of trans fats is a step in the right direction, but there's still plenty of dietary "work" to be done toward gaining an overall healthy lifestyle.