How much artificial trans fat is still in our food?

woman in a supermarket reading nutrition information and comparing two products

I felt guilty. I looked like any other health-conscious customer in the grocery store, perusing Nutrition Facts labels. But I was really there to hunt down a dangerous ingredient on store shelves called artificial trans fat. It’s the worst type of fat in our food supply — so bad, in fact, that the FDA is essentially banning it in processed food starting in 2018.

But that’s a long way off. How much artificial trans fat is on store shelves today?

The fuss about the fat

Artificial trans fats come from partially hydrogenated oils, which are made by a process using hydrogen gas to turn liquid vegetable oils into solids. The fats extend a food’s shelf life and improve flavor and texture. That’s made them a mainstay for decades in processed foods like margarines, crackers, cookies, corn chips, and pastries.

We didn’t know the fats were bad for us until the 1970s, when studies began linking them to heart disease. Today we know that trans fats increase “bad” LDL cholesterol, decrease “good” HDL cholesterol, raise the risk of blood clots, and boost inflammation — all of which increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

But it wasn’t until 2006 that the FDA required food makers to start listing trans fats on Nutrition Facts labels.

The hidden fat

Listing the amount of trans fats on a label doesn’t always make them visible, however. “The FDA doesn’t require trans fat to be listed until there’s a half gram or more per serving, so the label may show zero grams of trans fat, even if a serving contains almost half a gram,” says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The trick to finding trans fats: read the ingredient lists on Nutrition Facts labels. If partially hydrogenated oil is among the ingredients, you’ll know the food contains trans fat, even if the label states that a serving has zero grams of trans fat.

My mission

In stealth mode, I picked up package after package. Sure enough, most nutrition labels listed zero grams of trans fat, even when partially hydrogenated oils were clearly listed in the ingredients. And I found many kinds partially hydrogenated oils — soybean, coconut, cottonseed, corn, and canola.

There were the usual foods with trans fat: sugary breakfast cereals, refrigerated dough for biscuits and pastries, cake and brownie mixes, soft-baked chocolate cookies, ready-to-use frosting, granola bars, microwave popcorn, coffee creamer, vegetable shortening, cereals, soup, salad dressing, dips, sauce mixes, peanut butter, taco shells, cocoa mix, and even low-fat ice cream.

But some trans-fatty foods surprised me: fancy frozen fish fillets (potato-crusted cod), coffee drink mixes (double mocha cappuccino), and seasoned Italian breadcrumbs (although I should have expected that, since it’s a bread product).

I was also surprised by what I didn’t find. There weren’t as many products with partially hydrogenated oils as I expected. In some cases, I had to look at dozens of types of products to find partially hydrogenated oils. In other cases, I couldn’t find any partially hydrogenated oils where I knew they once existed (in canned soup, for example).

That ousting of oils is the result of food makers addressing consumer demand to remove trans fats, or getting on board with the FDA program early, since the end for trans fats in processed foods is coming.

Avoiding trans fats

Partially hydrogenated oils won’t go away until the middle of 2018, so we still have to be vigilant about consuming them. They’re out there, although you’re more likely to spot them in ingredient lists rather than trans fat listings. And even if the product contains less than half a gram of trans fat, it’s still bad for you. “No amount of trans fat is acceptable, from a health standpoint,” says McManus. And it’s worse, she points out, if you have a little bit of trans fat in a lot of products; it adds up.

And life without trans fat is healthier. Based on FDA estimates, researchers at the CDC report it is possible that eliminating trans fats in the diet may prevent as many as 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.

So by all means, avoid foods with partially hydrogenated oils. Go on your own fact-finding mission in the grocery store, read those nutrition labels, and let us know what you find; no stealth mode required.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:2

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin” : Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,

 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Eph. 2:22-24

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Collation 3:2-5

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11 (KJV)

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