Trans fat information is coming to a food label near you!
This really is big news. For years you've probably been avoiding saturated fats in foods while trans fats have escaped unnoticed. These "stealth fats" will no longer be able to hide in food and do their damage to your health without your knowledge. The Food and Drug Administration established a rule in 2003 requiring food manufacturers and makers of some dietary supplements to include trans fat information on the nutrition label of their products. All food labels must include this information by 2006, although some manufacturers are beginning to make the change already.
While reviewing guidelines on daily requirements for protein, fat, and carbohydrates, the Institute of Medicine drafted a letter to the Food and Drug Administration on trans fats. Here's the institute's bottom line: There's no safe daily level for trans fat intake, and we should eat as little of them as possible.
That might be easier to do if you could tell if trans fats are in a food and, if they are, how much it contains. Take one of Entenmann's Rich Frosted Donuts. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the five grams of saturated fat listed on its label are bad enough. But when you add in the unlisted five grams of trans fat, the total is half a day's allotment of unhealthy fat.
Trans fat labeling is meant to help you make more informed decisions about the food you eat and its effects on your health. Along with saturated fats and cholesterol, trans fats raise your low-density lipoprotein (LDL or bad cholesterol) levels. High LDL levels are associated with arteriosclerosis, the thickening and hardening of the arteries, and an increase in the risk of heart disease.
Trans fat forms when food manufacturers modify liquid fats to make them solid fats, as in the process of forming shortening or hard margarine from vegetable oil. French fries, potato chips, doughnuts, and cakes made with shortening are all foods high in trans fat. But even some diet foods, marketed as nutritionally balanced, contain this "phantom fat." Trans fats, also called trans fatty acids, are commonly listed in ingredients as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (usually soybean, cottonseed, or canola oils).
By watching your intake of trans fat, you can help prevent clogging of your arteries and heart disease. However, at this time researchers do not have enough information to set a recommended daily limit so labels will not include Percent Daily Value information. How will you know how much is too much trans fat? One suggestion is to add together the trans and saturated (animal) fats information and look at the total amount of artery clogging fat. As far as your body is concerned, trans and saturated fats do the same amount of damage. You want to try to limit your intake of foods that have significant amounts of these fats, or maybe even avoid them altogether. You should keep in mind that a food touted as "low in saturated fats" might very well be high in trans fat and just as harmful to you, so check the ingredients. The higher on the list an ingredient is, the more there is of it. But remember, not all fats are bad. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olive, canola, soybean, corn, and sunflower oils do not raise LDL cholesterol.
January 2004 Update
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.