How to Spot Sneaky Fat: The Truth About Hidden Trans Fats
Coming Clean About Trans Fats
Full disclosure: I am a baked-goods junkie. This is not something a health writer should admit. But it's my only vice. I am slim. I exercise regularly. And my eating habits are pretty healthy overall. I never have fast food, order fries maybe three times a year, remove the skin from my chicken, eat only lean red meat, drink skim milk, and make most of my meals from scratch using fresh ingredients. But every afternoon, the sweets craving hits. I may have a few cookies or buy a cupcake at the bakery. Occasionally I lust after a brownie. Once a month I bake a pie.
So when my doctor called me recently to tell me that my cholesterol was still 211 (despite having banned cheese and butter from my kitchen and upping my exercise to reduce it from 225), I was shocked. "I'm practically a vegetarian!" I insisted. After I hung up the phone, I wondered what was wrong. Now I may have the answer: trans fatty acids.
Trans fats have been present in our nation's food supply since early in the 20th century, lurking in many of the foods I love (packaged cookies, brownies, and piecrust, some bakery pastries) and many of those I avoid (fast-food fries, chips, prepared foods, doughnuts).
Trans fats occur naturally in low levels in foods such as milk, beef, and lamb, but the big problem comes from all the manufactured fats we eat: They're what keep foods from turning rancid on grocery store shelves and give croissants their flakiness. They keep muffins moist, make fries and chips finger-licking good, and satisfy my sweet tooth.
Though trans fatty acids account for only 5 to 10 percent of the fat in our diet, that's enough to wreak havoc on our cholesterol, clog our arteries, and take a staggering toll on our hearts. "Trans fat is, gram for gram, twice as bad for your cholesterol score as saturated fat," says Meir J. Stampfer, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a senior investigator for the Nurses' Health Study, an ongoing look at health issues confronting nearly 240,000 female nurses.
According to researchers, trans fats are to blame for anywhere from 70,000 to 288,000 heart attacks (fatal and nonfatal) in Americans each year. That's why as of this past January, the FDA requires all food manufacturers to list the trans-fat content of their products on food labels directly under the amount of saturated fat. (Some manufacturers started doing this voluntarily before the January 1 deadline.)
"Eating foods that contain trans fatty acids is like riding in a car without using a seat belt," says Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy organization concerned with health and nutrition issues. But here's the rub: While we know what a healthy level of saturated fat is (10 percent or less of your daily calories), no one knows what a healthy level would be for trans fatty acids. And worse, you can't always trust the new food labels. But there are ways to find the hidden fat even the label doesn't reveal.