When it comes to trans fats, nutrition labels can be deceiving

Sept. 9, 2014—Zero means zip, zilch, nada. Except, it seems, when it comes to trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils. Even packaged foods whose nutrition labels say they contain 0 grams of trans fats per serving can have small amounts of the artery-clogging lipid—in fact, in a new report, almost 1 in 10 products studied contained partially hydrogenated oils.

About the study

Researchers examined the nutrition labels and ingredient information for 4,340 packaged foods (like crackers, cookies, frozen pizza and salad dressing) in 2012. Researchers looked at the amount of trans fats listed on the label—and they also looked at the ingredients. If they found partially hydrogenated oils, it indicated that a product had some amount of trans fats.

At the moment, that disparity follows the guidelines of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which allow manufacturers to use the number zero in the trans fats column if their product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving.

Of the 391 products with ingredient lists that featured partially hydrogenated oils, 330 of those listed 0 grams of trans fats per serving on the nutrition label. About half of the food categories studied had at least one product with partially hydrogenated oils, but the problem was most prevalent among cookies and what researchers called “seasoned processed potatoes” products.

The results suggest that many Americans—even those who read nutrition labels—may be eating more trans fats than they realize. That’s problematic, researchers said, because studies show that even small amounts of trans fats can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.

Read the full article in Preventing Chronic Disease: Public Health Research, Practice and Policy here.

The take-home message
Even if a food’s nutrition label reads 0 grams trans fats per serving, that doesn’t guarantee that the item is truly free of trans fats. That’s dangerous, because trans fats raise LDL (bad)cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol, which can increase your risk for developing heart disease.

Trans fats are so unhealthy, in fact, that FDA has preliminarily concluded that they can no longer be generally recognized as safe. Which could mean that, eventually, the inclusion of partially hydrogenated oils in a product will be regulated by FDA, and artificial forms of trans fats might be banned from foods altogether.

But in the meantime, it’s up to consumers to avoid trans fats by reading packaging information carefully. In addition to scanning the nutrition facts label, read the ingredient list. If you spot the words partially hydrogenated, it’s safe to assume that the food contains at least some trans fats.

The good news? The report found that every food category contained items that were free of partially hydrogenated oils. Which means that with a careful eye, everyone can find healthier versions of the foods they love.

Get the ins and outs of reading food labels here.


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