Transcending the nutritional mystery of trans fat

Friday, October 10, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:44 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Local teacher Amy Meyer stood in the aisle at Gerbes grocery store studying the nutrition facts of canned fruit. Her 3-year-old daughter, Lauren, squirmed in the cart filled with nutritious cereal and reduced-fat peanut butter.

With three children and a husband to shop for, Meyer wants to make sure that what she buys is healthful.

“I look for reduced sugar, natural ingredients and the amount of saturated fat,” Meyer said.

Meyer will now have to study a new addition to the nutrition label. In July of this year, the Food and Drug Administration passed a regulation requiring trans fat to be listed on all food labels.

This won’t go into affect until 2006, but some companies have already begun placing it on their packaging. Pick up a bag of Lay’s chips, and you’ll notice the listing for trans fat squeezed between saturated fat and cholesterol.

This new addition will enable consumers to choose foods with lower levels of trans fat. Consumers like Meyer, however, aren’t sure exactly what trans fat is or how bad it is for the body.

What is trans fat?

The FDA’s Web site states, “trans fat is a specific type of fat formed when food manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine.”

The companies do this by adding hydrogen to the vegetable oil — a process called hydrogenation — to improve shelf life, said Jill Williams, registered dietician at Boone Hospital Center.

Why should I care about it?

If you want to delay the time when your ticker ticks its last tock, then you should care about trans fat.

Williams said trans fat acts like saturated fat by increasing your LDL cholesterol — the kind of cholesterol linked to increased risk of heart disease.

But heart-stopping trans fat goes one step further by lowering levels of HDL cholesterol — the healthy cholesterol linked to a strong heart.

For people like Meyer, who has children 3, 8, and 11 years old, this tag-team of unhealthy results amplifies the risks of a cardiac catastrophe.

What should I look for?

Manufacturers are not required to place trans fat on the label of their food products until Jan. 1, 2006. So how do you know if a product has trans fat or not?

Williams said to look for “hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients. Both partially and fully hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list means the food has trans fat in it, and the earlier on the ingredient list “hydrogenated oil” is, the more trans fat contained in the food.

As a general reference, most processed and packaged foods contain trans fat, Williams said. Crackers, cookies, French fries, margarine, doughnuts and cakes are all examples of foods that contain high amounts of trans fat.

What do I do about it?

The list of unhealthy edibles might sound like every tasty food out there, but you don’t have to cut out all heavenly chow.

Do side-by-side comparisons as much as you can to see where “hydrogenated oil” is on the product ingredient list.

Opt for soft margarines or margarine sprays over hard spreads to reduce trans fat consumption.

As of now, the FDA has not determined the amount of trans fat a person needs in a day, and so there is not a percent daily value for the fat. Williams, however, has an easy rule to remember.

“Less is better,” she said. “Get back to the whole, raw products. Fresh is best when it comes to food. Too many snack and convenience foods will have trans fat.”

For Meyer, encouraging healthful eating is already a process for the entire family.

“I’ve taught my two older boys to read the current nutrition labels,” Meyer said.

She now has a new lesson to teach.

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