Trans fat: Toxic or tasty

November 23, 2007

by Clare Howard

Eating those addictive light and luscious doughnuts made with trans fat is like eating lead: there is no minimum level that’s safe.

“Trans fat is a toxic chemical, and it does not belong in food any more than arsenic, lead or DDT,” said Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health. “The food industry in this country spends billions of dollars on how to exploit the weaknesses of children.

We protect children from alcohol, smoking and firearms, but children are not able to make good food choices. We need to limit advertising directed at children.

“Trans fat is a really bad actor, and it’s present in the food supply in large amounts.”

Besides heart disease, trans fat is a culprit in other ailments from diabetes to dementia, he said, noting that limiting consumption of trans fat would result in 30,000 to 100,000 fewer deaths each year from heart disease alone.

Problem is, the public was pushed to trans fat just decades ago with warnings to avoid butter and consume margarines, shun lard and replace it with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and minimize fat consumption.

Now we know:

– Fat can be good for you … and life-sustaining. Healthy fat reduces heart disease.

– Food manufacturers invented trans fat by discovering a way to solidify vegetable oils. The process of partial hydrogenation turns good vegetable oils into bad trans fats.

– Trans fat is worse than saturated fat.

– There is no acceptable minimum consumption of trans fat. The federal government actually allows foods with under a gram of trans fat to be labeled “zero trans fat.”

“That needs to be fixed,” Willett said. “It causes confusion.”

Willett is the scientist who criticized the federal government for a flawed food pyramid that failed to discriminate between good fats and bad fats. He said the advice to eat margarine and avoid all fat was not based on science.

Willett hopes the New York City ban on trans fats in restaurants spreads to the rest of the country, but in the meantime, how do we reduce our consumption of trans fat? When is the low-fat label more harmful than beneficial? Can fried food – french fries, fried chicken, chips – be trans fat free? When is a croissant worse for your health than a steak?

The answers are well known in the kitchen at 200 Oakbrook Drive in East Peoria, Ill., but the path to a healthy diet is still a process of compromise here as in most other households in America.

“For a long time I ate things I didn’t want to eat, and then decided I don’t care how hard it is to prepare different food. And it turned out not to be so hard,” said Susan Voigt-Reising, consultant and certified facilitator for the Coronary Health Improvement Project at Illinois Central College.

She and her husband, Mark, sometimes compromise and sometimes clash when it comes to food and other issues.

She is a Democrat and liberal. He is a Republican and conservative. She gets mail from Green Peace, Union of Concerned Scientists and Humane Society of the United States.

He gets mail from the National Rifle Association and plays paint ball. He gave up hunting when he and his wife married 20 years ago.

Their kitchen is filled with his and her foods. His potato chips have trans fat. She rarely eats chips, but when she does it’s Kettle Krinkle cut chips with no trans fat. She eats natural creamy peanut butter, he eats a low-fat crunchy kind. She eats Amy’s frozen pizza with no cheese and roasted vegetables. He eats frozen pork sausage pizza. She drinks soy milk. He experimented with and likes hormone-free, low-fat milk.

“That’s great when I’m knocking back cookies,” he said.

“You don’t knock back cookies!” she exclaimed.

“Oh yes I do,” he said. “I used to try the low-fat, low-salt food, and it had no taste. It was like eating sawdust. If it tastes like swill, forget it. But some of those foods have gotten a lot better tasting lately.”

Take cookies for example. Many commercially prepared cookies have trans fat. Mark Reising often makes cookies with a Betty Crocker oatmeal-chocolate chip packaged mix that can be prepared with options ranging from light butter, Smart Balance or canola oil to apple sauce or pureed prunes.

“I like to bake because I like to eat it,” Mark Reising said. “I’ve made cake with apple sauce. It’s not bad.”

There are good fats and bad fats, but no acceptable level of trans fat, Susan Voigt-Reising said. Saturated fats like meats and dairy should be reduced.

Good fats like omega-3 fatty acids, olive oil and canola oil have health benefits. Prepared salad dressings that are totally fat-free have eliminated even beneficial oils, so the “fat-free” label doesn’t always mean healthier.

“Weight is not the only reason to watch your diet. There is cholesterol. There are triglycerides,” Susan Voigt-Reising said. “Watching your diet can add years and years to your life. According to the most recent figures, 71 percent of men and 62 percent of women are overweight or obese. That’s a life and death issue. We are eating ourselves to death.”

Amy Lister, former clinical manager with CHIP and now director of education with Optimum Health Solutions, said, “In 10 years, I think we’ll view food like cigarettes in terms of how it can affect your health.”

“If a doughnut, bagel or bread had lead in it, would you keep the lead in for the taste?” she said. “Trans fat is mainly a preservative to increase shelf life. It’s in cookies, doughnuts, commercial baked goods, muffins, rolls.”

It is also used in many restaurants and chains to fry food, but more chains are replacing trans fat in the fryer with healthier oils. The switch can be made with little impact on cost or taste.

A large order of fries from a chain can contain 8 grams of trans fat. Even some foods labeled low fat can have 4 grams.

“If you don’t know whether a chain uses trans fat, avoid all its fried foods,” Lister said, noting that frozen foods may be just as bad, citing a popular frozen pot pie with 16 grams of trans fat.

“Chains want to keep consistent store to store. Trans fat is an easy thing to change without noticing any difference in taste,” she said, recommending people read labels and avoid “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oils.

Allison Tran, owner of Lin Hing Food Market in Peoria, said she has started carrying rice oil as well as olive oil, canola oil and other healthy vegetable oils.

Tran encouraged her friend, Linh Luong, to open a restaurant in Peoria. In the eight years Luong has owned the restaurant, no food has ever been prepared with trans fat.

“We use very little oil and when we use oil, it is vegetable oil,” Luong said. “In Vietnam, we used mostly peanut oil, but there are too many peanut allergies here.”

Dwayne Greer, vice president and spokesman for One World Cafe in Peoria, said, “We don’t even have trans fat in the building. Trans fat is produced, and there are other fats that are not as bad.”

He said there are more negative repercussions from the trend to switch from butter to margarines made with trans fat and from sugar to high fructose corn syrup.

“The body doesn’t stop eating those foods,” he said, explaining the addictive nature of foods made with trans fat and high fructose corn syrup.

Source: Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Magazine


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