If you see the words "partially hydrogenated" on a food label, you should drop the item back on the shelf and push your shopping cart away as fast as your legs will carry you.
At least that's what nutritionists and other health professionals are hoping you'll do until the FDA's new regulations on trans fatty acids take affect in 2006.
That's a long time to wait for something so important to your health, say some experts. To put it simply, trans fat is bad for your heart. So, until manufacturers are required to put the trans fat content on nutrition labels, you're going to have to do a little detective work yourself.
For instance, Arnold's new Healthy Multi-Grain Bread contains 0 grams of saturated fat, which sounds good. You have to make your way through the small print, past unbleached enriched wheat flour, brown rice, wheat bran, buttermilk and other healthy-sounding ingredients to get to the words "partially hydrogenated soybean oil." These tell you the bread contains trans fatty acids, which may be even worse for you than saturated fats.
True, it's not a great deal of trans fat, judging from the fact that partially hydrogenated oil is far down the list of ingredients. But in a product being sold as a health food, any trans fat is annoying.
"It's a red flag that this product contains something that's not natural," says Lisa Dorfman, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
The trans fat in processed foods is created by manufacturers who bombard vegetable oil with hydrogen gas to make it solid at room temperature. The result can then be used for margarine or as an ingredient in baked goods. The process also stabilizes oil so it doesn't turn rancid.
Cynthia Payne, a registered dietician at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, says she and others have been worried about trans fatty acids for nearly 20 years, although it's been only recently that these harmful fats have been getting much press. "I recognized [early on] that a man-made fat was likely to cause problems."
Research has found that trans fat delivers a one-two punch: It not only raises blood-cholesterol levels, which saturated fats like butter do, but also seems to lower HDL, or "good" cholesterol, which natural fats don't. There may be other negative effects as well, such as inflaming arteries or impairing insulin resistance, but these have not been well documented in the scientific literature.
Trans fatty acids are sometimes called "stealth fats" or "phantom fats" because they don't appear on nutrition labels. They can be found in foods you might not expect, such as breakfast cereals, and margarines sold as a healthy alternative to butter. Even more disturbing, trans fats tend to be found in foods marketed for kids.
Here are some other places they often lurk:
* French fries at fast food places
* Fried chicken
* Commercial baked goods: wholesome-seeming muffins, cakes and their icing, doughnuts
* Crackers, even "healthy" whole wheat ones
* Pie crusts
* Biscuit mixes
* Animal crackers and other cookies
* Frozen waffles
* Microwave popcorn
You can find alternatives to many of these that don't contain man-made fat if you do a little label reading. The question is, should we?
"I get concerned that people get obsessed with what they shouldn't eat rather than what they should be eating," says Dorfman. And consumers often zero in on one unhealthy ingredient. Trader Joe's specialty grocery store in Towson has a chocolate sandwich cookie that contains no trans fats, as an alternative to trans-fatty Oreos. But is that the worst thing to worry about in a chocolate sandwich cookie when you're getting 130 empty calories in a serving (2 cookies), 1 gram of saturated fat, 20 grams of carbohydrate and 100 grams of sodium? And who eats only two cookies anyway?
On the flip side, some things you might expect to have man-made fats don't. Last September, Frito-Lay announced that it was eliminating trans fat from Doritos, Cheetos and Tostitos in response to mounting evidence about its harmful effects. But what most people don't realize, says Frito-Lay spokesman Charles Nicolas, is that the company's other chips had never contained any. On the other hand, a serving of Cheetos does contain 1.5 grams of saturated fat.
One good result of the FDA's new ruling is that manufacturers may avoid putting the trans fat content on their labels by getting rid of it in their products. Several margarines are now shouting "NO TRANS FAT" on their boxes. Kraft Foods is reformulating some of its packaged goods. Whole Foods Market says it carries no products containing partially hydrogenated oils.
Still, we shouldn't go overboard. If the partially hydrogenated oil is far down on the list of ingredients, and there's zero saturated fat, that slice of bread or cracker isn't going to kill you. It's the total amount of heart- unhealthy fat Americans consume that's the problem. Nutritionists point out that it doesn't make sense to focus on trans fat and forget about harmful saturated fats.
In the end, a diet with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low- or no-fat dairy products, and lean protein and with few processed foods is our best defense against trans fat.
"It's always a good idea to eat foods as close to the way they come [naturally] as possible," says Payne. "If we do that, our body will be better able to handle some 'play' or junk food."