You may have read that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) resolved this week to officially ban artificial trans fat from the U.S. food supply by 2018. I think it's a great decision, but this move doesn’t mean that double-stuffed sandwich cookies will now be good for you (sorry). Here’s why, and three other things you should know about the FDA’s major action.
Trans fats are seriously bad for your health
Since this news broke, a few people have asked me if this ban is really necessary, or if a little trans fat here and there is really that big of a deal. My responses are yes, and yes. Numerous studies have linked man-made trans fat to health problems including heart disease, infertility, cancer, type 2 diabetes, liver problems, obesity, and even memory deficits. One study (albeit in animals) found that even when eating the same number of calories and identical amounts of fat, monkeys fed trans fat gained four times more weight and 30% more belly fat than those who ate monounsaturated fats instead.
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You should still read ingredient lists
Food companies have three years to remove trans fat from their products, so until it’s eradicated, you’ll have to do a little sleuthing to avoid it. A report out this year from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that up to 37% of foods in grocery stores may contain trans fat—and that's possible even if the label says "trans fat free." Technically, a product can claim to provide zero grams of trans fat if it contains less than 0.5 grams per serving. That means you could still be getting several grams per package. The only way to really tell if a product contains trans fat is to check the ingredient list. If the words “partially hydrogenated” appear, then there’s trans fat in the product. And while the amount may be small per serving, the fat grams can add up quick: If you eat a dozen foods over the course of a week that each contain 0.4 grams, you’ll take in almost 5 grams of trans fat total. And that’s very easy to do: The EWG report found partially hydrogenated oil in a slew of common supermarket items, including breakfast bars, granola, peanut butter, pretzels, crackers, bread, graham crackers, non-dairy creamer, cupcakes, and ice-cream cones.
One replacement may be worse for you than trans fat
Some companies have begun replacing partially hydrogenated oil with fully hydrogenated oil, also referred to as interesterified oil. While this replacement is technically trans fat-free, there is some indication that it may be worse for your health. A study from Brandeis University found that volunteers who consumed products made with interesterified oil experienced a drop in their “good” HDL cholesterol and a significant rise in blood sugar—about 20%—in just one month. To scope out interesterified oil, again, check the ingredient lists on packaged food; if you see the word "hydrogenated," whether partially or fully, you’ve identified artificial fat, and it should be avoided, period.
In fact, the best advice for steering clear of unhealthy fats is to eat fewer packaged and processed foods overall. Instead of buying microwave popcorn, pop your own on the stove top using organic popcorn kernels and sunflower oil. In place of pie, bake or grill fresh fruit, and top with a “crumble” made from rolled oats, cinnamon, and almond butter. There are many simple and healthy ways to make DIY versions of foods you might normally buy, and going homemade as much as possible means you get to control exactly what’s going into your meals, and into your body.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the New York Yankees MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Cynthia is a three time New York Times best selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.