The word “fat” is so confusing – whether it be the type that we wear on our bodies or the type we put into our bodies. Good fats, bad fats, healthy fats, trans fats. What does it all mean?
Let’s start with the one that’s been in the news lately – trans fat. A brief history: In the early 1900s a German chemist named Wilhelm Normann discovered a way to turn vegetable or fish oils from liquid to solid or semi-solid by treating them with hydrogen gas. More versatile, longer-lasting and cheaper than animal fats like butter, lard or beef tallow, partially hydrogenated oils like margarine, shortening and frying oils were born.
These partially hydrogenated oils were deemed safe and even assumed to be healthier than the animal fats they replaced, but as time passed, studies showed otherwise: There was evidence that trans fat caused heart disease, and increased levels of LDL (or “bad” cholesterol), like saturated fat. Not only that, but trans fats lowered levels of HDL (or “good” cholesterol); the kind of cholesterol you need for heart health.
A lot has happened between now and then, including Starbucks ending its use of the stuff; Crisco reformulating its shortening to contain less than one-half gram of trans fat per serving; and the New York City Board of Health adopting regulation to virtually eliminate artificial trans fats sold by restaurants and bakeries in the city.
And now, the latest: The FDA has recently announced that partially hydrogenated oils – the primary source of trans fat – are not “generally recognized as safe” for use in foods. They’ve given the food industry a deadline of 2018 for putting an end to using partially hydrogenated oils and fats in processed food products.
If you’re curious about what this all means, read on. Registered dietitian Mary Meck Higgins, an associate professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, clarifies it all:
Sheryl: What are the implications of this ruling?
Mary: Eating partially hydrogenated oils and partially hydrogenated fats is a strong risk factor for getting heart disease, which is the No. 1 cause of death for men and women in the U.S. They contribute to the buildup of plaque inside the arteries that may cause a heart attack. Eliminating them from the food supply should prevent thousands of deadly heart attacks each year – and fewer people will get heart disease.
Until that’s done, how can we figure out how much trans fat we’re getting? What should we watch for?
Mary: Currently, eliminating trans fat from one’s diet entirely is all but impossible because it’s practically unavoidable in the U.S. diet. People would also have to spend lots of time reading two kinds of food labels. The nutrition facts label shows how many grams of trans fat are in one serving of each processed food. (Foods sold without a nutrition facts or ingredients label do not have partially hydrogenated oils or artificial trans fat in them. Small amounts — typically about 2 to 3 percent — of naturally occurring trans fat may be found in some cooking oils and in the fat component of dairy and meat products from ruminant animals, such as cattle, sheep and goats.)
In many instances though, a food that is made with partially hydrogenated oils has too little trans fat in it per serving to be listed on the nutrition facts label.
For foods showing 0 grams trans fat, one must then look at the mostly small-print ingredients list. If a partially hydrogenated oil or fat is listed as an ingredient, then that food does contain a small amount of trans fat. The new FDA ruling will eliminate the need to have to do all of this, since partially hydrogenated oils will no longer be in our food supply once it goes into effect.
Which foods should we be especially wary of?
Frozen pizzas, coffee creamers, stick margarines, microwave popcorn, crackers, cookies, refrigerated dough products, cakes, packaged pies, ready-to-use frostings and nutrition bars. Avoid any brands that contain partially hydrogenated oils and fats.
What about saturated fat? How can be best lower our intake?
To further reduce risk of heart disease, people should limit dietary saturated fats. On average, people living in the U.S. eat four to five times as much saturated fat as trans fat.
I suggest eating at least three one-ounce servings of whole grains and 4 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables a day. Eat seafood — including oily fish — and cooked dry beans and peas in place of some meat and poultry. Choose skinless poultry. For beef and pork, choose lean cuts — such as loin — and at least 90 percent lean ground. Limit intake of fatty meats, such as sausage, franks, bacon and ribs. In addition, choose fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, cheeses and other dairy products. Cook and bake with liquid oils instead of shortenings, butter and lard.