Oh, the delicioius sweetness of the pastry, a morning delicacy that pleasures the tongue and delights the nose. But beware! It was most likely fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, an industrial product containing trans fatty acids. That delicious morsel may have as much as 7-8 grams of fat, almost half of which is trans fat.
Feeling virtuous, you might forego the sweet and pick up a biscuit on your way to work. Even plain, your biscuit may have as much as 11 grams of fat, with 3-4 grams of trans fat.
Thanks to new FDA labeling standards and media attention, many prepared foods have been re-engineered to eliminate trans fat. Examples of foods that may contain trans fats include cakes and icing, pies, biscuits, margarines, muffins and fried foods. So read the label carefully before buying and ask your server about ingredients and preparation before you order.
The American Dietetic Association provides these trans fat guidelines for healthy eating.
1. Limit or avoid both saturated and trans fats types of fat. The more fast food and packaged food you eat, the more trans fats you may be getting in your diet.
2. Use nutrition labels to estimate the trans fat content in a product. Add up the saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. If they are less than the "total fat" number, the remainder is likely trans fat.
3. Remember: Reduced-fat and fat-free foods will have virtually no trans fat in them.
4. Look for the term "partially hydrogenated oil" on the package ingredients list. If partially hydrogenated oil is first on the list — the product may contain trans fat.
Scientists have long suspected that when it comes to cardiac fitness not all fats are equal, but recent research at Harvard demonstrates that trans fatty acids, found in some vegetable oils, have a double whammy when it comes to heart health. Not only does trans fat increase your LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, it decreases your HDL (good cholesterol) levels.
In fact, Harvard's researchers report that just a 2 percent increase in trans fat calories was associated with a 23 percent increase in heart disease. So even a little bit of trans fat in your diet can be harmful. They estimate that replacing trans fats with healthier unsaturated fats could cut heart attacks and deaths from heart disease by 72,000 to 228,000 a year.
Scott Brechtel, master baker at Artisan Bakery and Cafe in Medford, anticipated the trend: "We started making our coffee cakes and muffins with no trans fats about two weeks ago," he says. "Our health-conscious customers are pleased with the alternative."
Helena Darling, a professional chef in Ashland, is well aware of it, too. "Wherever you get the oil from, no matter what kind of operation you have, it requires a little diligence to find products that don't have trans fat," she says. "For us, olive oil is really good. It just tastes better, it doesn't impart an artificial flavor to the food..."
Trans fatty acid is the food industry's new hot button. Thanks to last year's labeling laws, most foods distributed in the United States must tell the amount and kinds of fats they contain. "When that happened, manufacturers, as fast as they could, started getting trans fats out of foods," notes Dale Kline, registered dietician and owner of Nutrition Dimension in Ashland. "Trans fats may be gone, but there are still fats in there; it's [trans fat] been replaced by a different kind of fat."
Not all food manufacturers have eliminated trans fats from their products but there is some good news. Many prepared foods historically high in trans fats, such as microwave popcorn, potato chips and cooking oils and shortening, are now trans fat-free. At Fred Meyer and Food 4 Less, fried chicken is now prepared using trans fat-free oil and Starbucks, KFC, Wendy's and even Disney theme parks are switching to zero trans fats for at least some of their foods.
"A little bit of fat in food is not a bad thing. But people are eating too much," says Kline. "What happens is that fat has 9 calories per gram, and carbohydrates and proteins have 4," she explains. "So, on a weight basis you're getting two times the number of calories with the same amount of food." While new U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary standards stress nutrition more than calories, the agency recommends about 2,000 calories a day for a moderately active adult female with about 20-35 percent of those calories from fat.
Reducing dietary fat and minimizing trans fat is an important part of good nutrition. But don't be fooled into thinking that zero trans fats means healthy — chances are good that your prepared or frozen food has been re-engineered to eliminate trans fat, but still has more fat and sodium than you need. Don't forget to balance physical activity with calories, limit your food portions, eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and drink lots of water.
"You can lower your fat to almost nothing," Kline cautions, "But you have to get the healthy, good foods into your diet." And that's good eating.