Trans What? Trans Fat
What if you suddenly discovered that a dangerous, life-threatening substance had made its way into nearly half the foods in your supermarket?
It's not grocery terrorism or product tampering. It's trans fat, and the FDA estimates that 2,500 to 5,600 deaths per year could be prevented if consumers were more informed about it.
But trans fat is also a critical tool for commercial food producers, from grocery chains to restaurants. It's cheap and easy to make, easy to use, easy to store, and it extends food shelf life significantly, so food manufacturers lobby aggressively to prevent any regulation of it, including putting it on Nutrition Facts labels.
The trouble is, of all the fats, consumers most need to know the facts about trans fats, because, quite simply, they are the most damaging and dangerous to health. The Institute of Medicine in 2001 issued an unequivocal statement that trans fats "should not be eaten at all."
Bad News, Good News
Advice like that from the government's key health advisor is hard to ignore, and finally, in July 2003, the federal government took action, passing new rules requiring food producers to start including trans fats on Nutrition Facts labels by 2006, listing them separately from other fat content so consumers can see how much trouble they're bargaining for.
If you're like most Americans, you've been cutting back on dietary fat over the last 20 years or so, so you may wonder what the big deal is with trans fats.
The long-time rascal of dietary fat has been saturated fat, which is mainly found in animal products like meat, butter and cheeses, and vegetable oils like coconut and palm oils. They're considered the "bad fats" because they can raise your LDL cholesterol level, which increases your risk for coronary artery disease.
But they've got nothing on trans fats. Also referred to as "trans fatty acids," trans fats occur naturally only in tiny amounts. Most of us are getting trans fats made artificially, through the commercial process of hydrogenation, and we're consuming them in mass quantities.
Adding hydrogen to unsaturated vegetable oils will make them solid at room temperature. Think of that gleaming white goop that comes in a can. This is also how margarine is made from liquid vegetable oils.
Though unsaturated fats are generally less harmful--though not less fattening--than saturated fats, the process of hydrogenation alters them at the molecular level and turns them into trans fats, making them assume many of the characteristics of saturated fats.
Like saturated fats, these trans fats in commercial food products will offer the benefit of a longer shelf life. But they also come with the downside, because like saturated fats, trans fats raise the "bad" LDL cholesterol that accumulates in arteries.
The FDA estimated that informing consumers about trans fat content on food labels could prevent 7,600 to 17,000 cases of coronary heart disease each year, to say nothing of all those deaths.
The new Nutrition Facts labels will not have to indicate any daily value percentage for trans fats, but a footnote will be included saying that the intake of trans fats should be "as low as possible."