What is trans fat? An unhealthy fat still found in more foods than you think.
Amanda MacMillan and Amanda Gardner
October 21, 2015
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Trans fat is dangerous
Trans fat can make food taste good, last longer on grocery-store shelves, and more hazardous for your heart. The good news is that many manufacturers and fast-food chains have removed or reduced this type of fat in their products. That means Americans now consume 80% fewer trans fats than they did a decade ago, says Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, a spokesperson with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
But experts say zero intake is best for health, and there are still foods out there that contain trans fat. Ten years ago it was easier to spot, says Dubost, because it was in most fried foods and packaged crackers, cookies, cakes, and coffee creamers. Today it's more difficult to tell.
"You have to look at the actual brand," says Dubost. "You have to do some investigative work." Here are some potential sources of trans fat to watch out for. (And by 2018 no U.S. foods will contain manufactured trans fat, due to a ban by the Food and Drug Administration.)
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Trans fat is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil.
Many restaurant chains have stopped frying food in partially hydrogenated oils and so have significantly reduced trans fat levels in french fries and other foods. These include McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Jack in the Box, and Dairy Queen.
But others have been slow to embrace the trend: A large Cajun fries from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, for example, still contains 3.5 grams of trans fat.
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Anything fried or battered
Nutritional information might be harder to find for smaller, Mom-n-Pop restaurants and local eateries than the big chains, says Dubost.
Look at the establishment's web site to see what kind of oil they use. "A lot of them are voluntarily listing that on web sites right now," says Dubost.
If not, just ask when you get there.
Whether or not they're using partially hydrogenated oil, it's best for your heart to stay clear of fried foods anyway.
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Pie and piecrust
Baked products are notorious for containing trans fat, but many major restaurant chains (such as McDonald's and Burger King) have removed partially hydrogenated oils from their apple pies.
You can still find the trans-fat varieties in your grocery store, however: Many varieties of Marie Callender's frozen fruit and cream pies have between 1 and 4 grams of trans fat per serving.
As for piecrust, Pillsbury Frozen Pot Pie Crust Dough has 15 grams of trans fat (per pie).
Not so long ago, margarine was marketed as a healthier alternative to butter because it's made from vegetable oil instead of dairy or animal products. But for the margarine to maintain its solid form, many brands (especially stick varieties) depend on hydrogenated oils that are high in trans fat and/or saturated fat.
Steer clear of Blue Bonnet Regular Sticks (1.5 grams per serving), and instead opt for whipped, reduced-fat, or fat-free soft spreads. Get more tips here: Butter vs. Margarine: How to Choose.
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Crisco has come a long way in terms of trans fatso far, in fact, that according to the label, the popular shortening now contains 0 grams. But a closer look at the ingredients list shows that partially hydrogenated oils are still there.
Companies are allowed to round down and put "0 grams" on the nutrition label if their product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. But if you do a lot of bakingor a lot of eating once the cookies come out of the oventhose trace amounts can add up to unhealthy levels.
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Cake mixes and frostings
Even if you find a cake or muffin mix that's trans fat-free, you could still see the telltale word "shortening" on many ingredients lists, which means there are trace amounts.
Plus, you still need to worry about how you're going to top your creation. Duncan Hines's Vanilla Classic Home Style frosting contains 1.5 grams per serving. Betty Crocker's Homestyle Fluffy White Frosting Mix, however, is trans fat-free.
And some mixes do still have trans fats, such as Duncan Hines Double Fudge Brownie Mix (0.5 grams).
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Pancakes and waffles
Pancake and waffle mixes, too, often contain partially hydrogenated oils and some lesser-known brands contain trans fats, including Jiffy All-Purpose Baking Mix (1 gram per serving) and Pioneer Brand Buttermilk Baking Mix (2 grams per serving).
Bisquick has taken trans fats out of some of its products but Bisquick Original and Complete still list partially hydrogenated oil high on the ingredients list. Opt for Bisquick Gluten Free or Heart Smart formulas.
Although you are less likely to find trans fat in frozen fried chicken than in the past, there are still some offenders out there: Kid Cuisine All American Fried Chicken meala children's producthas 1 gram of trans fat per serving. Banquet Breaded Chicken Wings also has 1 gram.
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Certain flavors of Häagen-Dazs ice creamincluding butter pecan, coffee, rum raisin, green tea, and even plain old vanillacontain 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. But if you read the ingredients list, the telltale listing of partially hydrogenated oils is missing.
That may be because there are naturally occurring trans fats in fat-containing dairy products, which are thought to not be as dangerous as the manufactured trans fat. These products are high in calories, however, so you should still watch your intake.
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For coffee lovers, nondairy creamers can become an integral part of your morning. Over time, however, they can also add trans fat to your diet. Take liquid Coffee-Mate products, for example: A serving contains 0 grams trans fat, yet, for some flavors, partially hydrogenated oils are the second or third ingredient listed, which can add up if you drink multiple servings. (The manufacturer says partially hydrogenated oils are in the process of being removed.)
Powdered Coffee-Mate now contains hydrogenated oils, rather than partially hydrogenated oils. Although not technically trans fats or considered harmful to your health, hydrogenated oils do contain some saturated fat.
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Popcorn in itself is a healthy snack, and a serving of whole grains to boot. But when you pour on the gooey toppings, there's no telling what you're really adding.
Case in point: Orville Redenbacher's microwave popcorn. The Pour Over Movie Theater butter flavor contains 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, and the Caramel flavor contains 1.5 grams.
Pop Secret is even worse: The butter and jumbo pop movie theater butter flavors each contain 5 grams of trans fat per servingmore than 15 grams per bag!
Just as with dairy products, beef can also contain natural trans fat. So although the big chains have worked hard to remove partially hydrogenated oils from their fried foods, most restaurant burgers still contain significant levels of trans fat, including Applebee's Quesadilla Burger with 3.5 grams.
You'll also find trans fat in many frozen burgers, beef sausages, beef hot dogs, and ground beef.
But animal products, like fried foods, don't make for the healthiest of diets. Instead of meat, especially red meat, go for plant-based foods.
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Cookies and Cakes
Oreos phased out trans fat in 2006 after Kraft Foods was sued by the Campaign to Ban Partially Hydrogenated Oils. (The lawsuit was dismissed.) Chips Ahoy!, Nilla Wafers, and Girl Scout cookies also now fall below 0.5 grams per serving, although some still contain partially hydrogenated oils.
Beware of store-bought frozen desserts, some of which contain trans fats, Pepperidge Farm Classic Coconut Layer Cake and Sara Lee Strawberry Cream Cake among them. Each has 2.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
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Biscuits and sweet rolls
Many chainsBurger King, McDonald's, and Popeyesnow offer biscuits with 0 grams of trans fat per serving. Most Cinnabon locations are trans fat–free (including all locations in California and New York), but Krispy Kreme's large cinnamon and pecan rolls still have 1 gram each.
And check the grocery-store type. Pillsbury's refrigerated Cinnabon Inspired Cinnamon Rolls have 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Other varieties don't have trans fat on the label but do have partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients including Pillsbury's Grands! Homestyle Buttermilk.
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Doughnuts are often the poster-child food for trans fat, but in 2007, Dunkin' Donuts reformulated their menu so most items now contain 0 grams per serving (or at least fall below 0.5 grams).
Unfortunately that's not always true for breakfast sandwiches served on biscuits at other chains, such as Carl's Jr.. Some sandwiches have 6 grams of trans fat. And at the grocery store, steer clear of White Castle hamburgers and cheeseburgers (0.5 and 1 gram of trans fat per serving respectively.
Krispy Kreme has also reduced trans fats in their doughnuts to below 0.5 grams per serving, but there's still a surprising non-doughnut source of trans fat on their menuthe worst item on our list, in fact.
A 20-ounce Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Arctic Avalanche contains a whopping 9 grams of trans fat. Across the board, many of the restaurant shakes and creamy drinks we looked at contained half a gram or a gram (hot chocolate beverages too), but nothing came close to this over-the-top blend of soft-serve ice cream and cookie dough mix-ins.
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You're packing more than just protein when you snap into a Slim Jim: The Giant size Dare and Monster versions of this jerky strip contain 1 and either 1.5 or 2 grams of trans fat, respectively. (The original, smaller snack sticks also contain trans fat, which occurs naturally in beef, in smaller amounts.)
Instead of processed meat sticks, aim to eat more plant-based snacks such as fruit or raw vegetables. And get most of your protein from heart-healthy fish, poultry, lentils, soybeans, and nuts.
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Nabisco's Premium Saltines, Stoned Wheat Thins, and Ritz have trans-fat levels below 0.5 grams per serving, but some varieties contain partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil in their ingredients lists. If you eat more than a few crackers, even this small amount will add up.
To be sure you're buying crackers that contain no trans fat, read the ingredients list before even looking at the nutrition label. Choose snacks that avoid partially hydrogenated oils altogether, such as Stacy's Pita Chips or Annie's Bunnies.
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Frozen foods are likely to contain trans fat not just to make the foods more stable but also to give them a fattier feel in your mouth.
Frozen dinners and microwave meals are some of the biggest problems. Marie Callender's Country Fried Beef, Grilled Chicken Alfredo Bake, and Fettuccini Alfredo dinners, for example, each contain 0.5 grams of trans fat.
La Choy's ready-to-eat chow mein and rice noodles can provide a tasty crunch in salads or stir-fries, but they also deliver 1.5 grams of trans fat per 1/2-cup serving. (For a similar but heart-healthy crunch, try slivered almonds instead.)
Partially hydrogenated oils can also lurk in packages of ramen noodles and microwave soup cups.
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Several varieties of Wolf Brand canned chiliwith and without beanscontain between 0.5 and 1.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
A better bet is the company's trans-fat free turkey chili, which also has fewer calories and less saturated fat.
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Snack Pack's Dessert Twists Caramel Cream Pudding may be "made with real nonfat milk," but it's far from a health food. The caramel cream flavor contains 1 gram of trans fat, and all flavors pack between 8% and 10% of your daily allowance for saturated fat.
The brand's other flavors all claim no trans fat on their nutrition labels, but it's a good idea to read the ingredients list of any pudding or creamy dessert to rule out low levels of partially hydrogenated oils flying under the radar.
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