Stealth Fat Lurks in Favorite Foods

Many 'Healthy Foods' Full of Unlabeled Trans Fats

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 10, 2003 -- Grab a handful of Nabisco Wheat Thins. A healthy snack? Maybe not. The baked-wheat treats are filled with just as much of an artery-clogging kind of fat -- 2 grams -- as a Burger King Dutch Apple Pie.

Don't bother switching to Sunshine Cheez-It Baked Snack Crackers. Like two Eggo Buttermilk Waffles, they hold 1.5 grams of the stuff. So does 3/4 of a cup of Kellogg's Cracklin' Oat Bran Cereal. I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! Margarine carries 2 grams; there's even a half gram in Quaker Chocolate Chunk Chewy Low Fat Granola Bars. The figures come from tests run on 30 top-selling foods by Consumers Union. They appear in the March issue of Consumer Reports.

The sneak attack on your health comes from trans fat. Don't look for it on the label. Current FDA rules don't require it to be listed along with saturated fat -- the other kind of fat that's particularly bad for you.

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"Trans fats are bad," Marvin M. Lipman, MD, chief medical advisor for Consumer Reports, tells WebMD. "They are there and they are not labeled."

What other foods are on the Consumer Reports list? Here are a few:

  • 1 glazed Dunkin' Donut: 4 grams of trans fat + 2.5 grams of saturated fat = 6.5 grams of bad fat.
  • 3 Nabisco Chips Ahoy! Real Chocolate Chip Cookies: 1.5 grams of trans fat + 2 grams of saturated fat = 3.5 grams of bad fat.
  • 1 cup of Orville Redenbacher's Popping Corn (Movie Theatre Butter): 0.5 grams of trans fat + 1 gram of saturated fat = 1.5 grams of bad fat.
  • 6 chips of Frito-Lay Tostitos Restaurant Style Tortilla Chips: 0.5 grams of trans fat + 1 gram of saturated fat = 1.5 grams of bad fat.
  • 1/2 cup of Post Selects Great Grains Whole Grain Cereal: 0.5 grams of trans fat + 0.5 grams of saturated fat = 1 gram of bad fat.
  • 2 Pillsbury Buttermilk Waffles: 1.5 grams of trans fat + 1.5 grams of saturated fat = 3 grams of bad fat.
  • 1 tablespoon of Crisco All Vegetable Shortening: 1.5 grams of trans fat + 2.5 grams of saturated fat = 4 grams of bad fat.

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But not all healthy baked foods have trans fat. Neither Arnold nor Pepperidge Farm 100% whole wheat bread has any trans fat or saturated fat.

There's a little bit of trans fat in some meats, but this health hazard is almost entirely man made. Trans fats are used in fast-food cooking because they don't spatter. But they also help solidify margarine and baked foods. They are cheap to produce and easy to use. Like saturated fats, they hurt your health.

Saturated fats are the only fats given special treatment on a product's label. Yet trans fats are just as bad. They may even be worse.

"Trans fat increases 'bad' LDL cholesterol -- in some studies more than saturated fat," Lipman says. "It also has a tendency to reduce 'good' HDL cholesterol, which saturated fat doesn't do. They work together as a pretty formidable instigator of clogged arteries and heart disease."

That's not all. Trans fat also increases blood levels of two other bad actors. One is the kind of fat called triglycerides. The other is a particle called lipoprotein(a), which promotes clogged arteries.

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Since 1999, the FDA has tried to get manufacturers to label foods for trans fats. The food industry strenuously objected. But a recent report from the prestigious Institute of Medicine now points to trans fats as a health hazard. The result: The FDA will act in March, an FDA spokesperson tells WebMD. Once it does, food manufacturers will have one year to comply.

"Trans fats may be hidden, but they are no worse than other fats," Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America Inc., tells WebMD. "Singling out any kind of fat as being worse than any other is not supported by science."

"Any amount of trans fat is bad," Lipman says. "Nobody knows how much trans fat is too much."

Public awareness of trans fats already is making a difference. Frito-Lay tells Consumer Reports that it plans to eliminate trans fat from Cheetos, Doritos, and Tostitos. And McDonald's says it will cut out nearly half the trans fat in its french fries -- although fast-food fries will never be healthy food.

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Here's Consumer Reports' advice on how to look out for trans fat:

  • Read the list of ingredients. If you see "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" or "partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening" near the top, you can bet on a lot of trans fat. If this is near the bottom of the list, however, the amount of trans fat may be small.
  • Suspect trans fat in margarines and shortenings; deep-fried fast and snack foods; and commercial baked goods such as pies, cookies, and crackers.
  • Don't be fooled by serving size. A small amount of trans fat in a tiny serving becomes a lot of trans fat in a normal serving. For example, most popcorn "serving sizes" are only a cupful. That's far less than the big bowls most people gobble.
  • Do label math. A few products list saturated, monosaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. If they don't add up to the total fats, the missing number is probably trans fat.
  • Products low in total fat likely are low in trans fat.
  • Beware of products that claim to have "low saturated fat" or "extra lean." They may still have lots of trans fat.
  • Labels that say "saturated fat free" have less than 0.5 grams of trans fat and less than 0.5 grams of saturated fat per serving.
  • Look for soft or liquid margarines instead of hard margarines.

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WebMD Health News

Sources

SOURCES: Consumer Reports, March 2003 • Marvin M. Lipman, MD, chief medical advisor, Consumer Reports • Gene Grabowski, vice president for communications and marketing, Grocery Manufacturers of America Inc. • "Letter Report on Dietary Reference Intakes for Trans Fatty Acids," Institute of Medicine, 2002 • FDA web site.
© 2003 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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