BY ELIZABETH FIEND
All the Homer Simpsons of the world — you know who you are — are in a tizzy because The Government is banning their beloved trans fat. Believe me, it’s going to be fine. Anyone who’s against the banning of trans fatty acids doesn’t understand what trans fat is all about. Number one, it’s NOT about flavor. Have you had an Oreo cookie lately? Some Wendy’s French fries? Taste good? Okay! See, you didn’t even notice that the trans fat was removed. Trans fatty acids, most often found in hydrogenated oils, do not taste better than other natural fats like olive oil or butter. And even if all trans fats are banned across the land, you’ll still have the opportunity to eat plenty of unhealthy foods. Cakes, crackers, French fries, donuts — they’re not going to go away. So stop cryin’ already. If you sell your pound cake by saying “delicious buttery flavor,” why not actually use butter? What tastes more buttery than butter? A
semi-solid fat, made through an artificial process, does not taste better than butter. It’s just cheaper. Using trans fats saves the manufacturer some dough.
Price aside, trans fats are used because it’s easier to transport something made with a semi-solid fat, and because your cake holds up better and in a wider temperature range. Also, it looks fresher longer and can sit on the shelf not just for days, like butter-based baked goods, but maybe weeks or months. Yeah, trans fat works the same way embalming fluid works. On a calorie by calorie basis, no other micronutrient increases the risk of coronary disease as much as trans fat. According to a article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, trans fats are so bad for you that if only 20 to 60 calories in a 2,000-calorie day come from them, your risk of heart attack goes up 23 percent! Do you want to add this risk to your health because it’s a convenient production method? This is why the government has had to step in: To stop corporations from killing us in the name of profit. Actually, it’s a rather startling occurrence that local governments have taken a pro-active stance and begun to ban artificial trans fats. Bravo.
A little over 100 years ago, food scientists discovered a process called hydrogenation. What they did was take a hydrogen molecule and introduce it into liquid vegetable oils. Presto change-o, the liquid oil was now a semi-solid oil with a higher melting point. Margarine was born of this newfangled hydrogenation process. As a product, oleo margarine really took off during World War II, replacing butter and vegetable oils. Not because anyone thought margarine tasted better than natural, creamy butter, but because we were on war rations and had no butter. Add a little marketing spin, and soon hydrogenated oils and trans fats were off and frying.
Today, hydrogenated oils have been removed from many margarine products, especially the soft, spreadable kind. But they’re found in high quantities in salty snack foods like potato chips, deep fried foods, fast foods and packaged baked goods like cookies, cakes and crackers. Trans fats are used in deep-fried foods because they give a longer “fry life” to cooking oils and help fried foods seem fresh and crispy longer. Once again, these attributes are not about flavor, they’re about convenience for the manufacturer. Fast food cooking methods are largely kept under lock and key, but it’s believed that some fast food joints par-fry their fries in partially hydrogenated oils in the factory before they ship them out to the restaurants. When they get to the fast food joints they’re fried again. Sometimes a restaurant will use the same finish oil 100, even 300 times — that’s gross enough, but each time a batch of par-fried fries are added to the restaurant finish oil, a bit of the partially hydrogenated oil from the initial factory frying slips off into the finish oil — lurking there for the next batch, or the next 100 batches of fries. So by the time you order that 200th batch, there’s a lot of trans fat in the finish oil. This makes each order of fries a gamble on how much trans fat they contain. Just one KFC extra crispy chicken breast has 4.5 grams of trans fat (double the base amount that can cause heart disease). Add some fries to that . . . it’s a heart attack on a plate! Both Wendy’s and KFC secretly tested trans fat-free fries, and no one noticed. Wendy’s stopped using trans fat this summer, and KFC will soon follow. McDonalds, however, is being dragged kicking and screaming in to the trans fat-free world here in America, but they have successfully eliminated trans fat for their customers in Denmark.
Trans fats are a really devious invention. Consumption of trans fat doesn’t only raise the bad artery-clogging cholesterol (LDL), consumption of trans fat actually lowers the good cholesterol (HDL) as well! Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration left a loophole in the mandatory labeling of trans fats on packaged foods that went into effect this January. A manufacturer is allowed to say “contains 0 trans fat” if the amount of trans fatty acids is less than 0.5 grams. Because of the high risks associated with even a small amount of trans fat, complete avoidance should be your goal. If you eat a couple-too-many servings of foods with 0.4 grams of trans fat (possibly saying “0 trans fat” on the label) you could actually be consuming a dangerous level. Remember the danger level starts at only 20 calories from trans fat, so check the ingredient list in suspect foods. If it says “partially hydrogenated oil,” it has trans fat. Put it back on the shelf and back away slowly!
Not all types of fat are bad for you, of course. In fact, Americas obsession with avoiding fat by gorging on huge low-fat muffins and switching from a normal sized serving of regular salad dressing to using gobs of low-fat, but still caloric, dressing may have contributed significantly to Americas growing obesity problem. Fat is an essential part of a healthy diet, but only the right types of fats and in limited amounts. Remember, heart disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S. Stick with the good fats and as always eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
Monounsaturated fat is found in olives and olive oil, canola oil, most nuts and avocados. It lowers bad cholesterol (LDL) while raising good cholesterol (HDL).
Polyunsaturated fat also lowers bad cholesterol while raising good cholesterol. It’s found in the oils made from corn, sunflower and soy beans. Polyunsaturated fat also includes the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids which are found in flaxseed and fatty fish.
Saturated fat is mainly found in red meat and foods made with animal fats, like butter, cheese, whole milk and ice cream. Products containing chocolate and coconut are also high in saturated fat. Saturated fat raises both good and bad cholesterol.
Trans fatty acids / partially hydrogenated oils are the WORST type of fat. Even small amounts will increase your risk of heart attack. Trans fatty acids raise the bad artery-clogging cholesterol (LDL) AND lowers the good cholesterol (HDL).
Can’t keep them straight? If “un” appears in the name, it’s good for you. So Poly-un-saturated and Mono-un-saturated = Good. Saturated = Bad. Trans Fatty = Cuidado!
New England Journal of Medicine:
Med Page Today:
American Heart Association:
Ban Trans Fats.com:
Fast food chains:
The truth about Margarine:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Fiend is Philadelphia’s Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. Most people don’t know it yet, but that will change. Miss Fiend is host of the Big Tea Party. But enough of my yackin’, here’s Elizabeth with the 411 on her column: “Most people don’t think about the fact that science doesn’t determine our government’s regulations and recommendations for health and the environment, it’s sleazy politicking and backroom lobbying that makes the rules and I would like to bring this fact more to the forefront,” she says. “My philosophy is decidedly anti-big business/governmental lobbying but in line with the science of (my idol, ok crush) Dr. Walter Willett, Harvard University School of Public Health. There’s an edge to it, but it’s not goofy new age-y stuff with no basis in fact. And besides all that, I am the most fun of all the health advocates. I’m the only one who consistently wears pink and is brewing absinthe in her kitchen (excuse me, that’s illegal, infusing absinthe).” Word.