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Trans fat transition

(article, Rebecca Kessler)

Most supermarkets greet shoppers with abundant heaps of fresh fruits and veggies, the healthiest goods in the store. Step out of the produce section, though, and things get more complicated. 

Trans fats, the demon food du jour, seem to lurk everywhere — in the dairy cooler, along the snack aisles, at the bakery. 

Head out the door to a restaurant or fast-food joint, and you'll find trans fats again, used to deep-fry such treats as French fries and doughnuts. 

But while trans fats seem ubiquitous, they're also under siege. In the past year or so, cities and corporations ranging from New York City to McDonald's have belittled or outright banned trans fats for their poor health grade.  

Generations of consumers have blithely munched trans fats in baked and fried foods in blissful ignorance, in part because food manufacturers weren't required to indicate trans fats on product labels until 2006.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Calories from asparagus are better for you than calories from French fries, especially fries cooked in trans fats."]

Now trans fats seem to be on their way out of the food supply — just as we're becoming aware that we’ve been eating them. 

h3. Chemical magic 

Dairy products and certain meats contain small amounts of natural trans fats, but the vast majority of the trans fats in the American diet are artificial. These scientific wonders form when vegetable oil is chemically stabilized and solidified by adding hydrogen. 

Known as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, these chemical products were first introduced to consumers in 1911, when the vegetable shortening Crisco came on the market. Today, the oils are common in processed and fried foods, ranging from crackers and cookies to corn dogs and pie crust. 

Manufacturers of packaged snacks, pre-made foods, and baked goods prefer chemically hydrogenated oils because they’re cheap, and they lengthen shelf life. Restaurateurs like the affordability of these oils, too, and the fact that they can be used repeatedly for deep-frying without going rancid. 

Trans fats wound up in the dietary doghouse in 1990, however, when they were found not only to raise blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (the so-called “bad” cholesterol), but to simultaneously lower levels of high-density lipoprotein (the “good” cholesterol). The result is an increased risk of coronary heart disease in people who eat a lot of them. 

In fact, a notable study from the Harvard School of Public Health published last April blamed trans fats for more than 72,000 heart attacks and deaths related to coronary heart disease each year in the United States. Trans fats have also been linked to an elevated risk of diabetes.

The stuff just isn’t good for you. 

Since many trans fats are found in fried food, anti-trans-fats crusaders have targeted restaurants. In 2004, the 18 restaurants of Tiburon, California, voluntarily went trans-fat-free. This past winter, New York City and Philadelphia passed bans on trans fats in restaurants, and now officials in a number of other jurisdictions are considering doing the same. Others may instead require restaurants that use trans fats to alert consumers, or bar trans fats from public-school cafeterias.

Many major chains, including Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, and Starbucks, have pledged to drastically reduce or eliminate partially hydrogenated oils from their menus nationwide. And independent restaurants across the country are voluntarily dumping the fats, too. While many New York restaurateurs grumble about the expense of switching oils and reformulating their recipes, the anti-fat crusade is clearly rising to the top.

Even cooking schools are beginning to shun trans fats. The Culinary Institute of America, with campuses in Hyde Park, New York, and St. Helena, California, removed partially hydrogenated oils from its hands-on training curriculum in July 2005. And other schools are doing so, too. 

h3. Taste test

For flavor’s sake, professional bakers and chefs aren’t shedding any tears about the passing of artificial trans fats. "There is zero flavor coming out of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils," says Thomas Vaccaro, the associate dean for curriculum and instruction in the baking and pastry arts department of the Culinary Institute of America. “It leaves a greasy aftertaste.” In baked goods, he adds, trans fats don’t melt in your mouth like butter does, because their melting point is higher.

[%image danish float=right size=medium caption="Unlike butter, artificial trans fats have no flavor. Bakers add other flavors to pastries like these when butter is replaced by trans fats."

Take a Danish, for example. To bake a flavorful Danish using partially hydrogenated oils, commercial bakers add almond, lemon, or orange extracts, vanillas, or extra zip in the raspberry filling to fill the flavor hole left when butter is omitted. “The next step was to pour fondant — that melted icing — all over it to get that crunch. But once you get inside, there’s no flavor,” says Vaccaro. “If you used all butter, you wouldn’t need all that extra flavor.” 

The bottom line for bakers? “If you’re looking for better flavor, butter is the one. And the better the butter, the better the flavor,” Vaccaro says. 

There are definite textural differences that can compensate for partially hydrogenated oils’ lack of flavor. Cookies made with partially hydrogenated oils are softer and fluffier than those made with butter, which imparts a crispy texture. Piecrusts are lighter and flakier. 

But flavor was never the point of using partially hydrogenated oils, anyway. Commercially, it was about shelf life and price — both qualities that affect home kitchens, too. Compare butter ($3.99 a pound at my local grocer in Brooklyn, New York) to margarine ($2.19 a pound) and Crisco ($1.56 a pound for a three-pound tub). Guess which product lasts longest, too?

h1. Grocer goodbye

Some grocery stores are starting to back away from artificial trans fats. Leading the pack are Whole Foods Market, the nation’s largest natural-foods grocery store, and its recently acquired former competitor, Wild Oats Markets. Both say they have eliminated trans fats completely, both on the shelves and in the deli and bakery departments. (Delis and bakeries are great hiding places for trans fats, because nutritional labels are rarely displayed prominently in these locations.) 

Even mainstream grocery stores, including some of the nation’s largest chains, are beginning to make the change, albeit much more slowly. For example, Safeway, with more than 1,750 stores in the U.S. and Canada, now uses only trans-fat-free cooking oil in its deli departments and is looking into eliminating the stuff in all store-prepared foods, though there’s no deadline to complete the process, says Teena Massingill, a company spokeswoman. 

In December, the Kroger Company, which owns more than 2,450 grocery stores in 31 states, announced it had switched to trans-fat-free oil for frying chicken, and is exploring other trans-fats reductions in store-prepared foods. (Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest grocery retailer, could not provide such information, and Supervalu, with some 2,500 stores, declined to comment.) 

“I think this is something that’s happening across the industry. It is, of course, a response to consumer questions and consumer desire,” says Massingill. 


In the home kitchen, shortening and margarine have long been the main stand-alone ingredients containing trans fats. Crisco — whose 96-year-old shortening formula relied on partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil — ditched the bulk of its trans fats in January. And several margarine manufacturers, including Earth Balance and Fleischmann's, have introduced non-trans-fat versions of their products. 

The rest of the trans fats in the kitchen arrive concealed in processed foods. Buy fresh, whole foods instead of processed ones, and your kitchen will be trans-fat-free.

“If you’re starting with whole ingredients, it’s not something to be worried about,” says Sharon Akabas, the associate director of Columbia University’s Institute of Human Nutrition. Nutritionally, it’s best to use olive oil for sautéing and canola, peanut, or safflower oil for baking, she says, adding that home bakers can substitute milk for up to a third of the fat in most cookie recipes without the cookies suffering too badly. 

But, Akabas says, “Don’t go crazy. A good cookie is a good cookie, if you eat them in moderation.” She uses butter, even though it contains a small amount of naturally occurring trans fat, and plenty of cholesterol and saturated fat. Saturated fat is a lesser evil than trans fats, although it, too, raises bad-cholesterol levels — the reason many people switched to margarine in the first place.

If you must use margarine, Akabas says — to maintain a kosher diet, for instance — reach for a tub of the soft stuff instead of a stick; the harder the margarine, the more trans fats it contains. 

h3. Behind the label

On January 1, 2006, a Food and Drug Administration rule went into effect requiring that packaged foods list trans fats on their nutrition labels. As a result, manufacturers have scrambled to reduce or eliminate trans fats from their products. Walk through any grocery-store aisle, and you’ll find plenty of packages on the shelves boasting prominent “No Trans Fats” or “0g Trans Fat” labels. 

Stephen Joseph, a Bay Area lawyer and founder of the nonprofit organization, brought the issue to national attention by suing Kraft Foods in 2003 to stop marketing its Oreo cookies to kids. 

He dropped the lawsuit shortly after filing it, when Kraft announced it would reduce or eliminate partially hydrogenated oil from the cookies. In the wake of the lawsuit, Joseph was among the vocal petitioners encouraging the FDA to implement the new labeling requirements.

Needless to say, Joseph is pleased by the recent changes. “Three years ago, you could hardly find anything in a grocery store that didn’t have trans fats,” he says. “Now, it has changed completely.” 

Still, there’s a catch. Even products labeled “Trans Fat Free” may not be entirely so. The FDA permits products that contain up to half a gram of trans fats per serving to sport such labels and to list zero grams of trans fats per serving on the nutrition label.

“What I’m seeing is a lot of companies relying on the loophole in the law. I’m seeing that they’ve taken out just enough trans fat to claim that they’re zero, even though they’re not zero,” says Joseph. He and other critics would have liked a lower threshold; if not actually zero grams of trans fats, then, say, two-tenths of a gram, like Canada’s labeling law. 

How much of a problem is that half-gram “loophole”? 

Both the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines and the Institute of Medicine advise eating as few trans fats as possible. The American Heart Association is a bit more specific, saying trans fats should comprise no more than 1 percent of daily caloric intake. For an adult eating a typical 2,000 calories a day, that’s a maximum of about two grams of trans fats daily. (Each gram of fat, no matter the kind, has nine calories.) 

[%image broccoli float=left size=medium caption="Five daily servings of foods that contain hydrogenated oil is five too many. Substitute broccoli and other vegetables instead."]

That means no more than five servings of foods labeled “Trans Fat Free” if they list hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil in their ingredients. The equation assumes products have been engineered to squeeze in under the labeling requirement with about four-tenths of a gram of trans fats per serving. 

But five servings of processed foods a day is too many anyway, says Akabas: “If they’re eating enough processed food for their trans fats to start adding up, then trans fat isn’t their main problem.” Lovers of processed food are essentially getting their calories from poor sources; far better sources are fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.  

h3. The future of trans fats

In spite of the momentum of the anti-trans-fats campaign, Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), plans to continue pushing. 

CSPI lobbied hard for the FDA’s labeling requirements and sued Kentucky Fried Chicken over its use of partially hydrogenated oils. In 2004, CSPI petitioned the FDA to revoke the “generally recognized as safe” status of partially hydrogenated oils, which, if accepted, would likely result in strict limits on companies’ use of it. (So far, Denmark is the only country to have limited it nationwide.) The agency has yet to respond, and Jacobson says CSPI is considering suing to pressure it to do so.

CSPI is also considering suing major restaurant chains, such as Burger King, to get them to purge their trans fats. In the meantime, Jacobson is focused on encouraging cities and states to enact local measures. “That is where the main action is going to be,” he says. 

Yet there’s a certain danger in focusing too much attention on trans fats, cautions Akabas, the Columbia University nutritionist. “Once they take trans fats out and substitute it, people are going to think now it’s a healthy food. People will think, 'Now this is a healthy potato chip, now this is a healthy French fry.'” 

Unlike many vocal opponents of trans fats, Akabas (who testified in favor of the New York City ban) is skeptical that stomping them out will have a long-term public-health benefit. After all, Americans’ biggest diet problems are their high calorie intake and low activity level. 

“I prefer a food supply without trans fat. But I think our real work is to get people to eat fewer foods that had trans fat in them in the first place,” she says. “You don’t have trans fat in an orange or broccoli. That’s just not where they are.”

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and the author of the 2006 book What to Eat, reiterated this point in a recent email. “Trans fats are not poisons," she writes. "While removing them from the food supply is a good idea, it won't address the real problem for most people — calories. The substitutes will still have calories.”

In any case, says Akabas, trans fats are vanishing from menus and ingredient lists so fast that the whole discussion may soon be moot. “This is going to be a transient issue,” she says. “Trans fats are going to be a non-issue by the time many people learn what they are.”

p(bio). Rebecca Kessler lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is an editor at Natural History magazine and writes about science and the environment.

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