Do you consider yourself to be a lifelong learner? Keeping abreast of the latest changes in food manufacturing certainly requires constant vigilance. New food products arrive on our grocers’ shelves every day, promising to be either the most decadent or the most virtuous, depending on your foodstuff pursuit. For the purpose of this column, we will focus our attention on trans fats, and the food industry’s response to our knowledge about them.
Indeed trans fats are bad for you, and avoidance is best. Large volumes of cheap and plentiful vegetable oils, such as soybean and cottonseed oil, are partially hydrogenated to yield creamy solids that resemble lard at room temperatures. They have a longer shelf-life and are typically found in products such as stick margarines and processed foods like cookies, crackers, donuts and pastries. Most fast food restaurants continue to use them for frying. We should limit our consumption to no more than 2 grams of trans fat each day from these types of products. The FDA requires foods containing trans fats to list them on the Nutrition Facts label, which describes the nutritional content of one serving. However, if a serving contains no more than .5 grams of trans fat, the manufacturer can list a zero in that column. Therein lies the legality of the proudly-bold label claims of no trans fats, though partially hydrogenated oil may be in the ingredients. Eating two servings may actually get you very close to one full gram. Pretty sly.
Fast food restaurants may or may not disclose the trans fat content of their offerings on websites or in publications. The general public remains uninformed, while little Johnny’s chicken nuggets contain as much as 3 times the recommended limit. And that does not include the fries on the side.
Additionally, partially hydrogenated oils in processed foods are now being replaced by other fats, so a food can still have the zero trans fat label. Fully hydrogenated oils and tropical fats such as palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil are just a sampling. These fats are forms of saturated fat, another blameworthy contributor to artery-clogging.
Let trans and saturated fats become a bigger blip on your culinary radar screen. Keep seeking and reading those food labels. Instead of reaching for a 100-calorie pack of trans-and-saturated-fat-tainted nothing, why not reach for a juicy apple or some crunchy carrots? That’s putting your knowledge to work for you.
The LSU AgCenter and the LSU College of Agriculture