Sunday, August 11, 2013

Food Labels and Trans Fat

     I decided to declare a personal war against Hydrogenated Oils (a.k.a. Trans Fat) years ago. I’ve done my best to ban it from my home—but I must say, it’s a tough battle.
     First, a quick definition. Trans fatty acid is a man-made saturated fat wherein hydrogen atoms have been forcibly bonded to vegetable oil. It’s used in food as an inexpensive way to give it better taste and texture, and it definitely extends the shelf life. This explains why lots of processed food can stay in your pantry cabinet for months or even years without spoiling. But as far as I’m concerned, unless we’re talking honey, food that doesn’t spoil simply isn’t natural.
     According to Brian Olshansky, M.D., a cardiologist and University of Iowa Health Care professor of internal medicine, the making of trans fat "involves putting hydrogen atoms in the wrong place. It's like making a plastic."
     Because of the process of hydrogenation, the fatty acid chains end up deformed. This makes it difficult for the enzymes in our bodies to bond with these fats in order to break them down. In other words, trans fats end up stuck inside our bodies because our system doesn’t know how to deal with them. Our body is simply unable to break them down and use them correctly. "Normal fats are very supple and pliable, but the trans fatty acid is a stiff fat that can build up in the body and create havoc,” Olshansky said. It’s easy to find statistics on how this could lead to degenerative diseases.
     Now, here’s the thing that upsets me the most. Ever since 2006, food manufacturers have been mandated to declare the trans fat content on their labels. But there’s a deceptive loophole many of them take advantage of: For as long as the food item contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, the food company could label it as having 0 grams of trans fat.
     How deceptive can that get? Just take a look at the sample food label above. If you’ll look at the entries under TOTAL FAT, it says there’s a total of 5 grams per serving, and 0 grams of trans fat. But look at the fine print near the top of the label. It says there are eight servings in each pack. And in the ingredients list below, you’ll see it there in black and white: Partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil. What does that mean? If you consume only 1/8 of the pack, you’ll be ingesting less than 0.5 grams of trans fat. But from the label alone, there’s no way of knowing how much trans fat you’ll have in your system if you consume the whole pack in one sitting or in the span of a few days.
     So how do I make sure my family isn’t duped by the Nutrition “Facts” on these labels? I add up the Total Fat content and read the list of ingredients.  (Do note, however, that manufacturers are only required to list the saturated fat and trans fat. Other fats are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, so when those aren’t listed, the numbers won’t add up.)
       Now, for some good news! There are snacks to be found out there that honestly don’t contain these sneaky trans fatty acids. Every now and then, I’ll share any that I find with you for your snacking pleasure. 

     For starters, here’s a bag of potato chips that my kids and I plan to devour tonight! I've taken a photo of the nutrition information at the back so you can see that it has no hydrogenated oils listed in the ingredients and all the fats add up to the TOTAL FAT with trans fat at zero.


  1. The best way is to make your own snacks. I buy packs of corn tortillas (plain, no salt nor flavorings) and make my own dips -- usually fresh tomato salsa or sometimes sour cream with herbs. Pop some corn and put rosemary infused olive oil. True, transfat is a hard battle to fight but well worth doing it for my family.

  2. Great suggestions! I especially like the ones with herbs. You know I have a soft spot for herbs :-)