Does Your Diet Contain Hidden "Franken Fats"?
Learn where heart-threatening trans fats lurk and 7 ways to avoid them
If you know anything about eating healthy, you know trans fats aren’t part of a healthy diet.
Trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to liquid fats to turn them more solid. They’re used to improve texture, flavor and shelf life. Health advocates have dubbed them “zombie fats” and even “Franken Fats.” In late 2013, the Food and Drug Administration announced it was considering banning trans fats as food additives, which would effectively mean food manufacturers could no longer use them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that if Americans ate fewer trans fats, we’d have as many as 20,000 fewer heart attacks a year.
Yet despite growing awareness of the dangers, trans fats still lurk inside one in 11 processed foods in American supermarkets. That’s despite the fact that 84 percent of these products’ labels state “0 g trans fat,” according to a New York Department of Health study of thousands of packaged foods. The reason: A loophole allows foods with 0.5 grams of trans fat or less per serving to state they contain 0 grams. Translation: Eating several servings could deliver more of these artery-cloggers than you bargained for. (Research shows they increase heart disease risk by raising levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol.)
Trans fats are slowly going away — levels in processed food have fallen 73 percent since 2006. — but they aren’t gone. Here are five ways to avoid them.
1. Read the Nutrition Facts panel and the ingredients list. The Nutrition Facts panel will list the amount of trans fat if it’s more than 0.5 grams per serving. If it says “0 grams” next to “trans fat,” take the next step and scour the ingredients list. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated oil,” the food contains trans fats.
2. Can’t check the label? Know which foods are most likely to contain trans fats. According to that New York Department of Health study, processed foods that most often contained trans fats include:
- Frozen entrees and side dishes
- Breakfast cereals
- Cakes, snack cakes and muffins
- Pretzels and snack mixes
- Seasoned, processed potatoes
- Seasoned pasta and stuffing mixes
- Tortillas and wraps
According to the FDA, you may also find trans fats in fast food, some shortenings and stick margarines, coffee creamers, refrigerated dough products (such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls) and ready-to-use frostings.
3. Practice damage control. Can’t give up a favorite craving from the list above? Look for a product that doesn’t contain trans fats. If you can’t find one, keep your heart risk lower by choosing one with the smallest amount of trans fats, saturated fats and cholesterol per serving, the FDA suggests. And, of course, stick with one serving for an occasional treat.
4. Visit restaurant websites. Many fast-food and casual-dining chains post their fare’s nutrition information on their website. It’s worth a check.
5. Eat more fresh, non-packaged foods. Trans fats are added to processed foods — you won’t find them in fruit, vegetables or plain whole grains.
6. Do your own baking. Gotta have your cookies or cakes? If you bake them yourself from scratch, they won’t have harmful trans fats (unless you use a margarine that contains hydrogenated oil).
7. Don’t worry about “natural” trans fats in dairy and meat. Bacteria in the stomachs of cows and sheep convert oils from livestock feed into naturally occurring trans fats. There’s no evidence that these increase your risk of heart disease. Called conjugated linoleic acid, this type of trans fat may actually have health benefits.