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 About.com, “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.