Hide And Seek: Spotting Trans Fat On A Label

They're lurking in your doughnuts and non-dairy creamers. They're hiding in long, intimidating lists of ingredients in your breads and ice creams. Can you spot a trans fat when you see it? Do you even know why it is so important to look?

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Trans fat: you see the term on food labels, but chances are, you know it more from recent headlines in the news. That is because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has changed its stance on partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary source of these mostly man-made fats, deciding that it no longer considers them to be “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS). Companies have until June 18, 2018 to remove all PHOs from their products.

We do not have to wait until 2018 to take action, though. Eliminating trans fats from your diet right now can have a profound impact on your health. All you need is my easy-to-follow guide below for identifying and removing them today.

Step One: Start reading all food labels. This can be a little tedious at first, but knowing what is in what you eat is a very important part of taking charge of your health. If the line reading “Trans Fats” says anything but “0g” (zero grams), it contains high levels of trans fats. (Yes, even one gram is considered high.)

You would think that would be enough. Surely, if we only eat products that say they have zero grams of trans fat, we will not have any trans fats in our diets. Unfortunately, it is not quite that simple.

In 2008, the FDA ruled that companies can list zero grams of trans fat on a label if the product contains less than 0.5 grams. However, what if that product has, say, 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving (less than 0.5 grams, so the label says “0g”) and you happen to eat two servings? You have consumed 0.98 grams of trans fats without even realizing it. It sounds nit-picky, but when it comes to trans fats, every little bit matters. Even increasing your daily intake of these fats by 2 percent (about one or two grams) can increase your risk for heart disease by 23 percent. Yikes.

Step Two: To figure out if a product has hidden trans fats despite saying “0g” on the nutrition facts panel, we need to turn to the ingredient list. Here, we are looking for two words: “hydrogenated” and “shortening.” Shortening is almost always made from partially hydrogenated oils, and hydrogenated oils, we have already determined, are sources of trans fats. Partially hydrogenated fats are the biggest source, but even fully hydrogenated oils will contain some trans fats, although in much smaller quantities.

Technically, there are two more words that should raise a red flag when you see them: monoglycerides and diglycerides (sometimes expressed as “mono & diglycerides” on a label). These are broken pieces of fat molecules, essentially, that may or may not have come from a hydrogenated (trans) fat. It is impossible to say for sure, but most agree that a large portion of mono- and diglycerides on the market come, at least in part, from trans fats. As consumers become more savvy to terms like hydrogenated and trans fat, companies have begun using these mono- and diglycerides instead of PHOs. Sometimes they are, in fact, trans fat free, but the labels never say, so it is a chance you have to choose to take for yourself.

Step Three: Muster up the courage to ask about products that do not have labels. This means talking to waiters at restaurants (who will rarely know without asking someone in the kitchen) and employees at bakeries, for example. Here is some tough news to swallow: Nearly everything currently sold at the majority of U.S. bakeries contains trans fat. It is not particularly uncommon at restaurants, either.

I know, I know: Ignorance is bliss. But sometimes to achieve our goals, we have to come to terms with some uncomfortable truths.

Here is another uncomfortable truth: this controversy will not end with eliminating partially hydrogenated oils. In fact, this ruling is only the beginning. Companies have already begun turning to other processed fats and oils that preliminary studies indicate are likely just as harmful.

There will always be a bigger, “badder” ingredient of concern. Most big corporations will always, by nature, consider the bottom line before public health. It is our job–not theirs–to advocate for our health. The good news in this seemingly hopeless situation is that we do have that power. We must arm ourselves with knowledge, vote with our dollars every time we shop, and remind ourselves that any health goal is not one giant, black-or-white leap, but rather a slow and steady, transformative journey. Whenever it starts to feel overwhelming or you start to lose sight of the bigger picture, pause for a deep breath and take one step forward. You can do it.

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