The Food and Drug Administration's recent ruling that trans fats are unsafe in food — paving the way for a ban — was hailed by nutritionists and health-food advocates nationwide. But what was lost amid all the hype and hoopla over the FDA move was the fact that many foods still contain dangerous levels of the fake fats.
In fact, partially hydrogenated oils are likely to remain in many processed, fried, and fast foods for years to come, as the FDA moves toward banning trans fats — an action the agency said would prevent more than 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 new cases of coronary heart disease each year.
Susan Levin, director of nutrition for the advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, says the take-home message for consumers is not to wait for the FDA to act, but to take proactive steps now to identify foods with trans fats and other unhealthy ingredients and steer clear of them.
"FDA has put forth a proposal to ban trans fats … and given how many people in this country suffer and ultimately die from heart disease, which is directly related to trans fats and bad diets, saying they are unsafe is really a responsible thing," Levin tells Newsmax Health. "But my fear is that suddenly everyone will think eating fried foods is good and eating donuts is good."
To help consumers, Levin has come up with a list of five key foods and food groups that still contain high levels of artificial trans fats, which are formed when food makers turn liquid oils into solid fats in a process called hydrogenation, which increases a food's shelf life but also pumps the body full of artery-clogging fat.
Baked goods, snack foods: Most grain-based crackers, cookies, cakes, desserts, and other boxed and processed baked goods and snack foods contain at least some levels of trans fats. Some microwave popcorn brands are also surprising sources of trans fats, with Pop Secret Premium Butter Popcorn delivering 5 grams per serving and Jolly Time Blast o Butter Popcorn containing 4 grams, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"This is a huge source," says Levin. "This is why they even invented trans fats in the first place — to make all of these foods shelf-stable."
Fast food: Many chain restaurants have moved away from trans fats, using healthier alternatives to fry foods. But even so, many fast-food products are still deep-fried in hydrogenated oil. According to the CSPI, a Burger King Whopper delivers just 1 gram of artificial trans fat, but Long John Silver's Breaded Clam Strips contain 7 grams per serving and Popeye's Breakfast Hashbrowns contain 10 grams.
"A lot of fast food places are answering the call not to use trans fats in their fryers," Levin notes. "But when you eat their foods out … you're more likely to get something that's deep-fried in hydrogenated oil. Also, a lot of the products you find in fast food — ground beef, chicken nuggets — have hydrogenated oils and trans fats."
Margarine: Many oil-based vegetable shortenings, artificial butter alternatives, and stick margarines are loaded with trans fats. CSPI notes, for instance, that most stick brands contain at least 1.5 grams of trans fat per serving; Walmart's Great Value Stick margarine has 3 grams per serving.
"I would say these are the poster children for trans fats — the preliminary phase of all the shelf-stable products that science made in order to produce all these products," Levin explains. "Margarines are classic trans fats products." She recommends spreads, such as Earth Balance, that are plant-based and made without artificial ingredients or hydrogenated oils, and are free of gluten, lactose, and eggs.
Other cooking products and mixes also contain trans fats. According to the CSPI, Keebler Ready Crust Mini Graham Cracker Pie Crust and Betty Crocker Pie Crust Mix contain 2-2.5 grams per serving.
Dairy: Milk,cheese, ice cream, and other dairy products are key sources of natural trans fats and the No. 1 source of saturated fat in the American diet (trans fat is a type of saturated fat). One slice of Sara Lee Classic New York style Cheesecake contains 3 grams and Marie Callender's Peanut Butter Creme Pie contains 4, according to the CSPI.
"We don't need any saturated fat in our diet and everyone agrees that we need to eat as little as possible," Levin says. "Natural trans fats are in ice cream, cream cheese, solid cheese, and whole milk."
Meat: They may not be the first things that spring to mind when you think of trans fats, but animal products — steak, beef, and chicken — all contain natural trans fats. "If I took the same amount by grams of, say, ground beef or hamburger and compared it to, say, Doritos, the meat actually has about 10 times the amount of trans fats," Levin notes.
She adds that, at least in the short term, it will be difficult to avoid these and other products that still contain trans fats, so it will be important to check food labels to reduce your risk.
"If you are going to be eating these foods out of boxes, bags, and cartons, you need to be a food label reader," she advises. "If the food label says it has partially hydrogenated anything, it still has trans fats."
In addition, Levin notes trans fats aren't the only dietary evils in processed and packaged foods. Many snack and processed foods are loaded with salt, fat, sugar, and other high-calorie, low-nutrient ingredients tied to heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and other health conditions.
"I think something everyone can agree on is that people should be consuming fewer products out of bags and boxes and cartons, and eating more foods that are whole foods — fruits, vegetables, and beans —that actually protect against disease and lower your risks."
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