The truth about trans fats: Zero isn’t always zero

by Terry B on February 4, 2009

Turns out zero trans fats on the package Nutrition Facts panel doesn’t necessarily mean there are no trans fats inside. Here’s how to tell whether there are trans fats in your food or not and why it matters.

For many of us, trans fats appeared on our radar screens just about the time the food industry started getting its collective panties in a bunch about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ruling [in July 2003] that by January 1, 2006, all Nutrition Facts panels on food packaging had to include trans fats.

Pretty soon, though, smart food producers whose products were trans fat-free started using that fact as a marketing tool, putting it right on the front of their packaging. And as consumers became more aware of the health hazards of these evil fats, many companies decided maybe it was time to give up this cheap, industrially produced substance for healthier choices.

So now, post-2006, avoiding trans fats is as easy as looking for that reassuring 0g [zero grams] next to Trans Fats on the Nutrition Facts panel, right? Not so fast. I’m not sure whose quid got pro quoed, but according to the FDA, anything less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving can be listed as zero grams on the label.

How much is .5 grams, that the government thinks it’s essentially nothing? According to the Mayo Clinic, “Though that’s a small amount of trans fat, if you eat multiple servings of foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, you could exceed recommended limits.”

And what might those recommended levels be? As you can see with this illustration, food nutrition labels in the U.S. don’t list a Percent Daily Value for trans fat; it’s unknown what an appropriate level would be, other than it should be low. But the Mayo Clinic reports that “the American Heart Association recommends that no more than 1 percent of your total daily calories be trans fat. If you consume 2,000 calories a day, that works out to 2 grams of trans fat or less.”

The skinny on fats, good, bad and awful

There are four kinds of fats—monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good fats, an important part of a healthy diet. Particularly monounsaturated fats, proven to lower “bad” [LDL] cholesterol while raising “good” [HDL] cholesterol. You’ll find these good guys in olive oil and canola oil, among other sources.

Polyunsaturated fats lower LDL cholesterol levels too, but according to some sources, they can lower HDL cholesterol as well. Still, they’re generally considered good fats. All that said, fats are fats, laden with calories. Chugging olive oil, for instance, is maybe not a great idea.

Saturated fats are bad guys, artery-clogging, LDL cholesterol-raising fats found in meats and dairy products. It’s generally agreed that we should carefully limit our intake of these. Here, I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s sage advice, “All things in moderation, including moderation.”

Trans fats are the really bad guys, the Dr. Evil of fats, as one site put it. They’re also something of a Frankenstein’s monster. They’re created when vegetable oils and other fats are partially hydrogenated—chemically altered to convert liquid fats to semi-solid forms, making them more usable in margarines and spreads and commercial baking, among other applications. Partial hydrogenation also greatly extends shelf life, making processed foods last longer. Unfortunately, the resulting trans fats are the absolutely worst fats for you. They not only increase LDL cholesterol, they lower HDL cholesterol. Further, according to the website Ban Trans Fats, they “cause major clogging of arteries; cause insulin resistance; cause or contribute to type 2 diabetes; and cause or contribute to other serious health problems.” By conservative estimates, trans fats are responsible for about 30,000 deaths a year in the United States alone.

How to tell when zero really means zero

Don’t just look at the Nutrition Facts panel—take a look at the ingredients list. If you find partially hydrogenated [oil] on the list, there are trans fats in the food. Ironically, if you find fully hydrogenated, no problem—fully hydrogenating oils to produce an even more solid fat virtually eliminates trans fats. But beware. According to Fiona Haynes, who writes about low fat cooking for, “if a package simply lists ‘hydrogenated oil,’ without expressly stating whether it is partially or fully hydrogenated, it may not be trans-fat free.”

The bottom line? Trans fats are gradually disappearing from grocery store shelves, but you still have to read the labels. If you do, you can greatly reduce your intake. Unfortunately, they’re still prevalent in restaurant foods, particularly fast food restaurants. So until you hear otherwise, tell them to hold the fries.


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

heather February 4, 2009 at 7:37 pm

as a dietitian, this is something that saddens and frustrates me to no end. most people are unaware of this “cheat” and thus do not know to look for it. you point out that they claim it is a small enough number to be considered safe – the small number should be ZERO. have a party and eat too many “trans fat free” chips or cookies or crackers – bam, you’ve just eaten several grams! zero is the optimum here. zero should be the rule. otherwise change the label to something else to clearly let consumers know what they’re eating.

thanks for bringing this up!



Terry B February 5, 2009 at 4:50 am

You’re exactly right, Heather. And the problem is not so much the occasional party indulgences, but people who eat a steady diet of junk food and fast food.

Toni February 5, 2009 at 5:07 am

Thanks for adding this one to your wonderful series, Terry. I’ve been using Earth Balance for years, which is a sister company to Smart Balance. The latter has a commercial which is running now on TV which also brings this issue to people’s attention.

Trans fats also occur naturally in beef, but the current evidence shows that naturally occurring trans fats (such as in beef or in butter) has only a limited impact on health.

Terry B February 5, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Thanks, Toni! And if you want to hear something really strange, there are also minute traces of naturally occurring trans fats in pomegranates, cabbage and peas! But like those found in meats and dairy products, they are not considered harmful.

brista February 13, 2009 at 4:43 am

Well, I knew that food companies could fudge the numbers with their trans-fat free label, but I didn’t know that there was a difference between fully hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated.

I read the labels and like high fructose corn syrup’s many nicknames, I assumed that fully hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, and plain-old-hydrogenated are different names for the same (bad) thing. Not like I’m going to be purposefully adding the full stuff (which I’m assuming is probably about the same as saturated fats on the good-to-evil scale?) and I’ll still probably just put it back on the store shelf anyway, but it’s good to know if I’m ever in (an incredibly unlikely and mostly hypothetical) ‘choose or die!!!’ situation at the grocery store.

Terry B February 13, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Hi, brista! Fully hydrogenated oils do contain more saturated fat, but much of it is in a form the body converts to a monosaturated fat which doesn’t raise bad cholesterol levels. That said, the more you can stick with good fats like olive oil and canola oil, the better.

Anticiplate February 14, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Don’t you just love how the FDA and food companies completely fool us. I have been reading a bunch of books recently, about just this thing. Oh! I could go OFF! But, I wont:)

Terry B February 15, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Hi, Anticiplate! Yeah, I think we’re all hoping that with the recent regime change, our government’s regulatory agencies will finally get back to—oh, I don’t know—regulating things?

Gerri Fehrle February 20, 2009 at 1:20 am

I just would like to know if the nutrition facts like saturated fats, monounsaturated and polysaturated fats don’t add up to the total fat could that mean there are some trans fats in the product even tho it saids no trans fats?

Terry B February 20, 2009 at 3:27 am

Gerri—I think you’ll find that those three will always add up if the package says no trans fats. You really just have to look for either hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated in the ingredients list to know for sure; if you find either of those terms, there are trans fats in the product, no matter what the label says.

Gerri Fehrle February 20, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Thanks for the information. But what about “Back to Nature” choc cookies? Total fat 6g, Satur fat 1.5g, trans fats 0, Polyunsat. 0.5g and monounsat 3.5. These numbers total 5.5g. Can we assume the 0.5 difference is trans fat? What does this mean for the consumer?

Terry B February 21, 2009 at 2:33 am

Gerri—Don’t know what to say about the mysterious missing half-gram of fat. I just looked at their website and see what you’re saying about the troublesome math. On the other hand, if you look at the ingredients list, you’ll see that there are no hydrogenated oils, partially, fully or otherwise. And that means no trans fats.

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