Trans fatty acids -- better known as "trans fats" -- have emerged as the food industry's newest bad boy.
Trans fats are formed during a process called hydrogenation, which converts a relatively healthy, unsaturated liquid fat -- like corn oil or soybean oil -- into a solid one. This gives the fat longer shelf life, so it's convenient for restaurants and food manufacturers.
The problem: The body treats hydrogenated fat more like saturated fat, like butter or animal fat. Saturated fat has long been known to clog arteries -- and some studies indicate trans fat may be a bit more evil. But on food labels, trans fatty acids are not included under "saturated fat."
What to Do, What to Do...
To help consumers, the Food and Drug Administration is requiring that all food labels list trans fats by January 1, 2006. Until then, how can you know which foods are safe and which contain these stealth fats?
For guidance, WebMD turned to the nation's nutrition gurus -- the experts at the American Dietetic Association (ADA).
"Until now, consumers were really in the dark about trans fatty acids. In fact, most people are probably very confused right now," says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, an ADA spokesperson. Moore is also director of nutrition therapy at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
Here are four ways you can make healthier choices at the supermarket. Immediately below these suggestions, we list the top 10 types of food loaded with trans fats. Print out this list to become a wise, safer shopper.
#1. Limit or avoid both saturated and trans fats types of fat.
There's no magic number to shoot for here, no "X" grams of trans fatty acids allowed in your daily diet, Moore tells WebMD. Just realize that the more fast food and packaged food you eat, the more trans fats you are getting in your diet.
#2. Use nutrition labels to estimate the trans fat content in a product.
Add up the saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. If they are less than the "total fat" number, the remainder is likely trans fat, says Moore.
#3. Remember: Reduced-fat and fat-free foods will have virtually no trans fat in them.
#4. Look for the term "partially hydrogenated oil" on the package ingredients list.
If partially hydrogenated oil is first on the list -- the product may contain trans fat.
Some manufacturers have already changed their recipes and formulas to reduce trans fats to less than 0.5% of fats. The ingredient list may state "partially hydrogenated oil," but if the packaging says "Contains No Trans Fats," you can believe it, says Moore.
Trans Fats Top 10
There's more good news. "It's very likely that in the next few months, we'll be seeing more and more products without trans fats" as the food industry adjusts to the new consumer awareness, Moore tells WebMD.
The Top 10 "Trans Fat" Foods:
1. Spreads. Margarine is a twisted sister -- it's loaded with trans fats and saturated fats, both of which can lead to heart disease. Other non-butter spreads and shortening also contain large amounts of trans fat and saturated fat:
- Stick margarine has 2.8 grams of trans fat per tablespoon, and 2.1 grams of saturated fat.
- Tub margarine has 0.6 grams of trans fat per tablespoon, and 1.2 grams of saturated fat.
- Shortening has 4.2 grams of trans fat per tablespoon, and 3.4 grams of saturated fat.
- Butter has 0.3 grams of trans fat per tablespoon, and 7.2 grams of saturated fat.
Tip: Look for soft-tub margarine, because it is less likely to have trans fat. Some margarines already say that on the packaging.
[Important note: When you cook with margarine or shortening, you will not increase the amount of trans fat in food, says Moore. Cooking is not the same as the hydrogenation process. "Margarine and shortening are already bad, but you won't make them any worse."]
2. Packaged foods. Cake mixes, Bisquick, and other mixes all have several grams of trans fat per serving.
Tip: Add flour and baking powder to your grocery list; do-it-yourself baking is about your only option right now, says Moore. Or watch for reduced-fat mixes.
3. Soups. Ramen noodles and soup cups contain very high levels of trans fat.
Tip: Get out the crock-pot and recipe book. Or try the fat-free and reduced-fat canned soups.
4. Fast Food. Bad news here: Fries, chicken, and other foods are deep-fried in partially hydrogenated oil. Even if the chains use liquid oil, fries are sometimes partially fried in trans fat before they're shipped to the restaurant. Pancakes and grilled sandwiches also have some trans fat, from margarine slathered on the grill. Examples:
- Fries (a medium order) contain 14.5 grams.
- A KFC Original Recipe chicken dinner has 7 grams, mostly from the chicken and biscuit.
- Burger King Dutch Apple Pie has 2 grams.
Tip: Order your meat broiled or baked. Skip the pie. Forget the biscuit. Skip the fries -- or share them with many friends.
5. Frozen Food. Those yummy frozen pies, pot pies, waffles, pizzas, even breaded fish sticks contain trans fat. Even if the label says it's low-fat, it still has trans fat.
- Mrs. Smith's Apple Pie has 4 grams trans fat in every delicious slice.
- Swanson Potato Topped Chicken Pot Pie has 1 gram trans fat.
- Banquet Chicken Pot Pie has no trans fat.
Tip: In frozen foods, baked is always heart-healthier than breaded. Even vegetable pizzas aren't flawless; they likely have trans fat in the dough. Pot pies are often loaded with too much saturated fat, even if they have no trans fat, so forget about it.
6. Baked Goods. Even worse news -- more trans fats are used in commercially baked products than any other foods. Doughnuts contain shortening in the dough and are cooked in trans fat.
Cookies and cakes (with shortening-based frostings) from supermarket bakeries have plenty of trans fat. Some higher-quality baked goods use butter instead of margarine, so they contain less trans fat, but more saturated fat.
- Donuts have about 5 grams of trans fat apiece, and nearly 5 grams of saturated fat.
- Cream-filled cookies have 1.9 grams of trans fat, and 1.2 grams of saturated fat.
- Pound cake has 4.3 grams of trans fat per slice, and 3.4 grams of saturated fat.
Tip: Get back to old-fashioned home cooking again. If you bake, use fat-substitute baking products, or just cut back on the bad ingredients, says Moore. Don't use the two sticks of butter or margarine the recipe calls for two. Try using one stick and a fat-free baking product.
7. Chips and Crackers. Shortening provides crispy texture. Even "reduced fat" brands can still have trans fat. Anything fried (like potato chips and corn chips) or buttery crackers have trans fat.
- A small bag of potato chips has 3.2 grams of trans fat.
- Nabisco Original Wheat Thins Baked Crackers have 2 grams in a 16-cracker serving.
- Sunshine Cheez-It Baked Snack Crackers have 1.5 grams per 27 crackers.
Tip: Think pretzels, toast, pita bread. Actually, pita bread with a little tomato sauce and low-fat cheese tastes pretty good after a few minutes in the toaster oven.
Tip: Whole-wheat toast, bagels, and many cereals don't have much fat. Cereals with nuts do contain fat, but it's healthy fat.
9. Cookies and Candy. Look at the labels; some have higher fat content than others. A chocolate bar with nuts -- or a cookie -- is likely to have more trans fat than gummy bears.
- Nabisco Chips Ahoy! Real Chocolate Chip Cookies have 1.5 grams per 3 cookies. If you plow through a few handfuls of those, you've put away a good amount of trans fat.
Tip: Gummy bears or jelly beans win, hands down. If you must have chocolate, get dark chocolate -- since it's been shown to have redeeming heart-healthy virtues.
10. Toppings and Dips. Nondairy creamers and flavored coffees, whipped toppings, bean dips, gravy mixes, and salad dressings contain lots of trans fat.
Tip: Use skim milk or powdered nonfat dry milk in coffee. Keep an eye out for fat-free products of all types. As for salad dressings, choose fat-free there, too -- or opt for old-fashioned oil-and-vinegar dressing. Natural oils such as olive oil and canola oil don't contain trans fat.
Can you eliminate trans fats entirely from your diet? Probably not. Even the esteemed National Academy of Sciences stated last year that such a laudable goal is not possible or realistic.
Instead, Moore suggests, "The goal is to have as little trans fat in your diet as possible. You're not eliminating trans fats entirely, but you're certainly cutting back."