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Trans-Fat-Free Food: What's the Truth?

The skinny on labels, calories, and what trans fat means to your diet.
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Trans Fat Substitutes

If a label says trans-fat-free, what else might the food item have in it?  Food chemists are experimenting with different fats and oils that are suitable replacements and don't alter taste or texture.

"Most of the fast-food restaurants have done a very good job switching to a vegetable oil like soybean oil to deep-fry their foods," says Jacobson. 

Using heart-healthier monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils, such as olive, canola, or corn oil, is a great option for some products, but doesn't work when you need a solid fat to make a food. Replacing trans fat with saturated fat is better, but not ideal.

"Trans fats are worse than any other fat, including butter or lard, so look for foods that use the least amount of trans fats," says Jacobson. "Even if it contains a little saturated fat, it is better than consuming the trans fat."

Adds Ward: "Tropical oils such as palm, palm kernel, and coconut may not contain trans fats, but they contain unhealthy saturated fats that are almost as bad for you as partially hydrogenated fats."

Trans Fats When You're Eating Out

But what about foods in restaurants, or from outside the U.S. where trans fat labeling may not be required? When restaurants and state fairs boast that their oils are trans-fat-free, some consumers may be misled into believing fried foods are good for them.

"Using trans-fat-free cooking oil to fry foods is certainly better," says Ward. "But the food is still fried, and fried food is high in fat and calories and generally not recommended for the heart or the waistline."

Wendy's, Taco Bell, Dunkin' Donuts, Baskin Robbins, Denny's, IHOP, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks are among the food companies that have replaced trans fats or are committed to doing so. Yet plenty of restaurants still use them.

"Avoiding fried foods and cakes, cookies, and pastries is the easiest way to reduce trans fat consumption when you eat out," says Jacobsen. 

You can also ask about the type of fat used for frying, baking, and in salad dressings. Even if the menu boasts that items are "cooked in vegetable oil," that doesn't necessarily mean they're trans- fat-free foods. They may contain some partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

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