The rush to remove trans fats from fried, baked, and processed goods has never been more frantic. Even Dunkin’ Donuts and the Indiana State Fair have promised to use healthier frying oils. But are the “heart-healthy” changes everything they seem?
A “Zero grams of trans fats!” sticker should give any consumer pause. Federal guidelines allow companies to label their foods as such if the product has fewer than 0.5 grams of trans fats a serving. Such a minimal amount may not hurt you (the American Heart Association recommends less than 2 grams a day), but eating three or four servings quickly pushes your trans fat consumption into the cholesterol-boosting range.
“Skip the label, and go straight to the ingredient list,” warns Ronni Julien, RD, LDN, author of The Trans-Fat Free Kitchen (HCI, 2006). “If it has partially hydrogenated oils, it has trans fats.”
Back to the tropics
Palm and coconut oil are becoming popular replacements for trans fats in baked goods (like Oreos) because they are solid at room temperature and more stable when exposed to high temperatures, both characteristics of partially hydrogenated oils.
Detractors, including the Heart Association, still cite the high levels of saturated fats in these oils as reason to steer clear. Ironically, many companies previously used palm oil but turned away from it once the dangers of saturated fat were touted in the 1980s.
Some nutritionists still don’t buy the negative hype over saturated fats. “Butter, coconut, and palm oils are whole foods and can be healthy when used in moderation,” says Cathy Crystal, instructor and nutrition consultant at Bauman College in Santa Cruz, Calif. “They’re absolutely healthier than trans fats.” Not that that’s an excuse to overindulge. The AHA still recommends limiting saturated fats to a mere 7 percent of your calorie intake.
Fearing the possible fallout of a high saturated fat content, many companies have also been investigating lab-created options, such as inter-esterification, a process that blends a fully hydrogenated oil with a liquid oil to create a stable, solid fat without trans fatty acids. One early study has already pointed to problems, however, showing that ingesting inter-esterified fat may elevate blood glucose levels by 20 percent while depressing HDL, the good cholesterol, just like trans fats.
Other manufacturers are genetically modifying plants to produce oils that don’t become rancid at high temperatures, a necessity for fried foods. Since the United States doesn’t have strict labeling standards regarding genetically modified organisms, buying organic is the only surefire way to avoid consuming oils that have been intentionally modified or hydrogenated.
“We don’t know if these modified foods are going to have negative or positive effects later on,” says Crystal. In place of trans fats or other modified oils, she suggests consumers simply rotate through natural fats like butter, coconut oil, or olive oil.
“Just use fats smartly,” she explains. “Rotating them will keep them from becoming allergenic and will deliver different nutrients.”
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