Playing Food Detective: Trans Fats

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Pick up any random woman’s magazine and read any random weight loss article, such as their “Top Ten Tips for Dropping Ten Pounds by Tuesday” and one of the first things they will tell you to do is “read the labels”. They tell you this, but they rarely explain WHY you are reading the label and what exactly you are looking for.

I know I have to look at the calories, the fat, the sugar, the net carbs - that’s all relatively simple stuff. But because the labels sometimes lie, you also have to read the ingredients list and have a basic understanding of what exactly you’re looking for.

The biggest offender of labeling lies is trans fats. Even if the packaging of a food product proudly declares “0 grams of trans fat” and the nutrition information states there is 0 grams of trans fat per serving, this doesn’t necessarily mean the enclosed product is actually free of trans fats. Huh? How can this be? Well, this is how it can be:

At the beginning of 2006, the government required food manufacturers to include the trans fat content of their product on the nutrition label. In order to be able to claim “0 grams of trans fat,” the product must contain less than half a gram per serving. This means the product may very well still contain trans fats - and if you eat more than one serving you’re obviously getting a lot more of it.

We all know we need to be careful in our consumption of trans fats (and by careful I mean avoid it like the plague) as it plays a big role in the development of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other health conditions. The FDA says no one should have more than 2 grams of trans fat per day; and, since it occurs naturally in some meats and dairy products, you really should be careful not to get even more from man-made sources.

So how do you ensure that your product that claims to be free of trans fats actually is? You put on your reading glasses and read the label, that’s how. And what are you looking for? According to the FDA, you are looking for the words, “shortening”, "partially hydrogenated oil" or "hydrogenated oil," because those items, my friend, are trans fats.

As an example, I was trying to do a comparison of fat-free liquid Coffee Mate (French Vanilla) versus their sugar-free version. The label for the sugar-free version claimed 1 gram of fat, 0 grams of trans fat and 0 grams of sugar (duh). This sounded like just what I was looking for, but putting my new found skill of label deciphering to use, I found the product contained “partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil” along with a rather scary list of other fake ingredients. Bad, bad, BAD Coffee Mate! Sigh. Label reading is not for the faint of heart.

This is one of the many things I love about frozen cauliflower. Ingredients: Cauliflower


Dave Darren said...

Yes good post. There mere words "per serving" are a pretty good tip-off also.

I've given up biscuits because it appears to be impossible to produce those commercially without at least 5 grams of trans fat per biscuit! Actually once I examined some LOWFAT biscuits and even they had like 3 grams trans fat.

Once from the "healthy" food aisle I bought a container of non-dairy fake cream cheese from Australia. Took it home and realized it had 2 grams of trans fat per tablespoon, couldn't believe it! Threw it right away.

I've been largely trans fat free for 2 or 3 years, I hope I didn't damage myself overmuch prior to that.

Mrs. Jelly Belly said...

Yeah, it's crazy, isn't it? And aren't biscuits primarily made with shortening? I am annoyed by things labelled as "healthy" that really aren't. And I especially hate that I have to do so much label reading in grocery stores just to find out which foods aren't really what their manufacturers claim them to be.