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Finding the Best Trans Fat Alternatives

Now that trans fats are out of many snack foods, what’s in?
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WebMD Feature

By now everyone agrees that trans fats are bad for our health.

These fats are created when manufacturers put liquid oils through a process called "hydrogenation." By adding hydrogen atoms, the oils are converted into solid fats with an extended shelf-life, so they can be readily used in commercial baked goods, stick margarines, snacks, and fast foods.

At one time experts believed trans fats were healthier than saturated fats such as butter or lard. In recent years, however, researchers discovered that these man-made fats are linked to many serious health problems.

  • A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 estimated that up to 228,000 coronary heart disease events could be avoided by the reduction or elimination trans fats from the American diet.
  • Another study of nearly 20,000 women published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2008 reported that women with the highest blood levels of trans fat had twice the risk of breast cancer compared to women with the lowest levels.
  • And yet another study by Harvard researchers published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention in 2008 found an increase in prostate cancer in men with the highest blood levels of certain trans fats.

While experts agree that trans fats should minimized in our diet, it's tough to get anyone to agree on the best way to do that.

WebMD turned to leading dietitians to explain a few of the options now being explored by the food industry:

  1. Using saturated fats such as butter, but in much smaller amounts.
  2. Inventing another man-made fat that tastes good without ill health effects.
  3. Using saturated vegetable fats, including palm and coconut oils.
  4. Using a blend of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated vegetable oils to get the shelf-life, taste, and texture of trans fats.

 

Trans Fat Alternative 1: Back To Butter

One trans fat alternative being considered is to simply return to using saturated fat from animals - such as butter and lard - but in small amounts.

"I actually think it would be a great idea to have baked goods taste like they were intended to taste, and at the same time, encourage people to eat a lot less of these foods, which I think is the really important message in all of this," says Miriam Pappa-Klein, MS, RD, clinical nutrition manager at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y.

While this won't solve the shelf-life problem -- butter and lard can turn rancid relatively quickly -- she says it can solve the taste and texture problem immediately and give us more reason to enjoy what we eat, but in smaller quantities. As good as that sounds, it's also a solution that leaves some dietitians very concerned.

"Going back to saturated fats is not the answer," says dietitian Samantha Heller, MS, RD, a clinical nutritionist from Fairfield, Conn. "I think we've already proved as a nation that we are not going to eat a little bit. If we could, we probably wouldn't be having this problem with trans fats right now - or be facing an obesity epidemic, particularly in children."

Nutritionist Lona Sandon agrees: "I think it's worth looking for something other than saturated fat. But I think we have to tread carefully over this new ground to ensure we don't make the same mistakes we made with trans fat," says Sandon, a dietitian at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

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