Is What You are Eating Really Trans Fat Free? — Perryman Nutrition Column

by Shirley Perryman, M.S., R.D.

Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition

Colorado State University

Cooperative Extension Specialist

A friend was pleased to tell me recently she carefully reads food labels to avoid trans fat. She accurately explained to me that trans fat raises the LDL – "bad" – cholesterol and lowers the HDL – "good" -cholesterol (her husband had heart surgery a year ago). When I asked her how she knew if a food was trans-fat-free,  she pointed to the "Zero Trans Fat" label on the package. She had the right idea but she shouldn’t stop there.

Beginning January 1, 2006, the Food and Drug Administration required that trans fat has to be listed on the nutrition facts label.  Often food manufacturers post "Zero Trans Fat" on the front of the package and many consumers think that eliminates any guess work about the presence of trans fat. It’s a great selling tactic unless you’re an informed consumer. Take it a step farther, drop your line of vision below the Nutrition Facts label to the list of ingredients, and search for the words: partially hydrogenated fat.  If the nutrition facts label above declares zero trans fat, by law the product must contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.  

Is that a problem? It could be if you consume multiple servings and you’re committed to consuming as little trans fat as possible for good heart health.  On one hand it’s a guessing game. There could be just a smidge of trans fat per serving or nearly 0.5 grams of partially hydrogenated oil if it’s listed as an ingredient. All those fractions can add up to a lot depending on how much you eat.

The federal dietary guidelines recommend keeping trans fat consumption as low as possible. There is no recommended limit or Daily Value for trans fat. The American Heart Association recommends that no more than 1 percent of your total daily calories come from trans fat and the average American consumes more than that. Translated it means if your daily calories equaled 2,000 you should consume no more than 2 grams of trans fat. To do the math yourself determine your daily caloric intake and multiply that by 1 percent. Divide that number by 9 and you’ll get the approximate grams of trans fat that should be your limit for the day. For example:  2000 calories x 1 percent = 20 calories of trans fat. Twenty calories of trans fat  9 calories per gram of fat = approximately 2 grams of trans fat.

Theoretically, if you consume 4 servings in a day of a food that has zero trans fat but lists partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient, you may be consuming nearly 2 grams of trans fat. There’s no way to know for sure. You must decide if you’re willing to gamble on your heart’s heath. The good news is that if your search of the ingredient label does not show partially hydrogenated fat, you can believe the product truly is trans fat free.

The foods most likely to contain partially hydrogenated oil are convenience packaged foods:  microwave popcorn, peanut butter, frozen foods, cookies and crackers to name a few. That doesn’t mean you have to give up these foods entirely. But if you’re committed to a healthy lifestyle, it does mean you have to take the extra time to read not only the Nutrition Facts label, but also check out the ingredients label and possibly search the grocery aisle for a healthier choice. Additionally, you’d be wise to limit the amount and frequency of including these foods in your diet.

Many restaurants are now making the switch to eliminate trans fat.  When you eat away from home you can ask which fats are used to prepare your food as trans fat is also present in many fried foods. French fries and chicken nuggets-popular menu items at fast food eateries-may be fried in vegetable oil containing trans fat. A medium order of fries could have as much as 8 grams of trans fat.  

If you’re conscious of heart-health, take the time to minimize trans fat in your daily diet. Make the commitment to take the time to read labels and prepare more of your food at home.

Here’s a final tip. Processed foods which may contain partially hydrogenated fat are in the middle aisles at the grocery store. If you shop the perimeter of the store where fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meats and dairy products are located, you’ll spend less time reading labels and more time enjoying a heart healthy life.