January 2009: Make your home a trans-fat free zone

Happy New Year!  I hope that the year 2009 is full of happiness and great health for you and your family!

A million thanks to Cindy Dooley who valiantly guest-authored this column.   She has put together a very personal story with a lot of great information about what trans fats are, why trans fats are something to avoid, and where they tend to lurk.  We figured that upon reading this column, you are likely going to want to investigate a few areas in your own home where you are most likely to find them:  the pantry, the fridge and the freezer.  (We found some in the medicine cabinet too, to our jaw-dropping shock).  We called up a few good friends who let us come over to their houses and peek through the contents of all these places to help us search out the culprits that are likely to be in a home with children (we owe a huge thank you to these families who were great in working with us as a team as we dug through your edible stock—Thank you!!!).   The main thing we struggled with in finalizing this column was “how do we keep it from being too overwhelming?  Trans fats are everywhere!

So here is what we suggest:  First, read Cindy’s awesome background information below.  Then, you might be ready for some next steps:

If you are looking for specific (by product name) substitutions, you should check out the results of our “trans fats pantry/fridge/freezer clean outs.”  For each area, we chose 15 real life products containing trans fats and offered a few recommendations on how to replace that specific product.  We’ve shown you in some cases the actual ingredients list and highlighted the trans fat culprit, so you can quickly become an expert in spotting trans fats yourself.  We hope that these suggestions will help those families that participated in the clean outs, and our other readers may have some products in common, too:

Pantry Clean Out

Fridge Clean Out
Freezer Clean Out

If you would like to focus on more general areas in your home and eating out, take a look at Cindy’s “avoid trans fat chart”, which gives you categories of foods that may contain trans fats, along with a more comprehensive list of many brands that you can look for in stores:  Cindy’s Avoid-Trans-Fat Chart

First, here is Cindy’s story:

I have a confession to make.  I love tortilla chips.  Really love them.  As in I lose all willpower when they’re in the house.  For years my brand of choice was Tostitos* by Frito Lay.  Mind you, I try to be careful about my indulgences.  It’s not like I eat a bag of chips every day (or even every week), but I probably average 2-3 servings of tortilla chips per week.  Apart from this “extravagance,” I eat a healthy diet, maintain my weight, exercise, etc. so this little vice seemed to be causing me no harm.  Or so I thought.

While still a loyal Tostitos customer, I began to pay attention to trans fats in foods.  Trans fatty acids go by other names, most often “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “vegetable shortening.”  These types of fats are usually added to baked goods and processed foods to increase shelf life.  Oh, and they’re cheap, too.  When ingested, trans fats raise blood levels of total cholesterol and LDL (the “bad” cholesterol), decrease levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol) and ultimately increase the risk of coronary heart disease.   Furthermore, some food labels say “zero trans fats” but legally may still contain 0.5 grams.  More on my chip saga later…

While researching this article, I found many sources that diagramed the actual molecular sources of trans fats.  Yawn!  Here’s the simplest “scientific” explanation I found from Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron:

“Hydrogenation is the chemical process that adds hydrogen to unsaturated fatty acids. Hydrogenation adds to the saturation (and therefore the solidity) of previously liquid vegetable oils, making their texture more palatable to some people.  Partially hydrogenated oils are worse than fully hydrogenated or totally saturated oils.  If an oil is only partially hydrogenated, the part that has not taken on hydrogen – the unsaturated part – is open to the formation of trans fatty acids.  Trans fats are carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and raise LDL and decrease HDL.  They are not found naturally in foods and are brought about by heating oils to high temperatures or by chemical processes such as hydrogenation.”

Two “disclaimers” on the above statements:  1)  The American Cancer Society has not stated that trans fats are carcinogens (although I personally believe – along with experts in the field – they are) but rather that there may be a link to trans fats and certain types of cancer.  Also, 2)  Trace quantities of some trans fats do occur naturally in foods, such as butter, milk products, cheese, beef and lamb.   More science here:  these types of naturally occurring trans fats are called conjugated linoleic acids (CLA).  By definition, CLAs are both trans fats and cis fats.  Cis fats have a different molecular structure than trans fats and “the cis bond causes a lower melting point and ostensibly also the observed beneficial health effects.  Unlike other trans fatty acids, it is not harmful but beneficial.” (Source:  wikipedia.com).  In other words, nothing to worry about if eaten in moderation.

Although the FDA recommends greatly limiting the amount of trans fats in the diet, it does not support an entire elimination because “ its removal from ordinary diets might introduce undesirable side effects and nutritional imbalances if proper nutritional planning is not undertaken.”  My interpretation:  consumers are so used to buying processed foods that if they stopped buying them, they may miss out on the scarce nutrients added to these processed foods.

The dangers and repercussions of trans fats stay with you long-term.  My nutritionist, Bonnie Minsky, M.A., M.P.H., C.N.S., L.D.N.  has a Hostess cupcake in her office that is 27 years old.  It’s in perfect condition (although the wrapper has started to disintegrate).  I’ve seen this cupcake with my own eyes and I ate many of these cupcakes as a child.  For 27 years, Bonnie has used this cupcake to exhibit the staying power of trans fat.  The cupcake’s label says “Best Used by March 19, 1981.”  All of the ingredients are real with the exception of artificial flavor and partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat).  Imagine THAT in your arteries!  Why did Bonnie “preserve” this cupcake?  She says, “When I first started practicing nutrition, I spoke at a lot of schools. I wanted to show children the difference between eating real foods, or foods that break down after a few hours/days, and foods with a long shelf life. After several months and into the following year, the cupcake had not changed its form at all.  Fast forward to 2008.  Little did I know that I would still be using it.”

Why are trans fats so harmful to people?  Bonnie says in her book, Nutrition in a Nutshell, “the process of hydrogenation totally changes the molecular structure of a fat, which prevents the human body from metabolizing it in a safe way.  A Harvard study published in Lancet (March, 1993) found that women who consumed foods high in trans fatty acids, especially from margarine, had a 50% higher risk for coronary artery disease than did women who consumed these fats rarely!”  Another Harvard study of 41,518 women that Bonnie sites had these results:  every increase of one percentage point in the portion of calories from trans fats translated to a two-pound weight gain over eight years. For example, a woman who was consuming 6% of calories from trans fat would be 12 pounds heavier after eight years than someone eating none.

The recognition of the danger of trans fat has grown immensely in recent years, prompting many cities in the United States to ban the use of trans fats in food prepared in restaurants.  Tiburon, CA was the leader, followed by Montgomery County, MD, Philadelphia and New York City.  San Francisco bans the use of trans fats on a voluntary basis, and our own Sweet Home Chicago has begun the process.  The U.S. is following the lead of many countries that already have this ban in existence.  The American Medical Association “supports any state and federal efforts to ban the use of artificial trans fats in U.S. restaurants and bakeries.”

In addition to coronary heart disease, the use of trans fats may be related to Alzheimer’s disease, cancer (prostate and breast), diabetes (Type II), obesity, liver dysfunction (trans fats are metabolized differently by the liver) and infertility.  One 2007 study found, “Each 2% increase in the intake of energy from trans unsaturated fats, as opposed to that from carbohydrates, was associated with a 73% greater risk of ovulatory infertility inflammatory-related diseases.” (Wikipedia.com).

The National Academy of Sciences has “concluded there is no safe level of trans fat consumption.  There is no adequate level, recommended daily amount or tolerable upper limit for trans fats.”  I was glad to see that unlike the FDA, the NAS has no tolerance for trans fats.  However, according to its website, the NAS does list safe levels of arsenic consumption.  Let me repeat that again:  the National Academy of Sciences says that there are NO safe levels of trans fats, yet there ARE safe levels of arsenic.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t give your kids (or yourself J) cupcakes.  Just not the ones made with trans fats that can survive 27+ years.

Now, back to me and my tortilla chips.  It was about four or five years ago when I consciously decided to stop buying foods with trans fats.  I wasn’t about to give up my chips, just the trans fat.  There are many, many, many options available of all the foods you know and love that do not contain trans fat.  Fat, when used in moderation, is not the enemy – but the kind of fat is.  Prior to giving up Tostitos, my cholesterol levels were always good, but my LDL (“bad” cholesterol) was a little high – hovering above the “normal” range.  When I switched to a different brand of tortilla chips (when I did this, I made NO other changes to my diet – I was already eating healthily and very few processed foods apart from the chips – and maintained my regular exercise routine), my total cholesterol dropped 10 points, my HDL (“good” cholesterol) increased 10 points and my LDL decreased 40 points!  When I asked my doctor if it was possible to have such a drastic change by only eliminating trans fat (and pretty much the only source I was eating was the chips), she said most definitely.  She told me that if people insist on eating foods with trans fats, they may as well coat their arteries with glue.

Have I convinced you yet?  Or better yet, has the cupcake convinced you?  At the very least, I hope I have given you some food for thought.  Trans fats have no place in our diets, especially our children’s.  As Ruth Yaron says, “they may extend the shelf life of food, but they limit the lives of people.”

Sources: Internet: www.nutritionalconcepts.com, www.fda.gov, www.wickipedia.com, www.ama-assn.org, www.nas.edu.   Books: Nutrition in a Nutshell:  Build Health and Slow Down the Aging Process, Bonnie C. Minsky, M.A., M.P.H., C.N.S., L.D.N.  Copyright 2000.  Vital Health Publishing. Super Baby Food, Ruth Yaron. Copyright 1998.  F.J. Roberts Publishing Company.

*Tostitos brand now makes their chips free of trans fatty acids.  (Hostess Cupcakes still uses trans fats.

Disclaimer: This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.

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