Viva Sans the Trans!

You. Me. We need to start getting a little bit more uncomfortable with trans fat. Because food producers, restaurants and even the USDA sure seem to think we're pretty comfortable with it. That's why it's still lurking deep in the depths of many of the foods we buy at the grocery store. Even, and here's the scariest part, the ones that are supposedly healthiest.

So what's the big deal about trans fat you ask? Well I sure hope you're not still asking that question, since even the industry knows you likely won't stand for grams upon grams of artery-clogging solidified vegetable oil on the labels of the food you buy. Trans fat: worse for you than saturated fat, likened to poison by some health experts. The fact is, with how much trans fat we still eat, nearly three years after the USDA required that trans fat content be listed on all food packages, something bad could be happening to us, right under our noses.

Here's the crux: the USDA does not require disclosure of trans fatty acid content under 0.5 grams per serving in any food. If a food has 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving, then it is not only allowed to state in its nutrition facts that it has 0 grams of trans fat, but can also write that very same big fat lie in big fat bold colorful levels all over the front of the package as well. Atrocious! Who of us hasn't eaten multiple servings of a food in one sitting, let alone in a day? I have no desire to eat a half gram of trans fat three or five times a day or even per week. Even the most liberal estimators of a daily allowance for trans fat (of which the official allowance is technically 0) say you should eat just 2.5 grams of trans fat per day. I don't know about you, but 0.5 hidden grams of trans fat per serving gets me to 2.5 a little too fast. And I don't want to be anywhere near that number. I want to be near 0 everyday. With no headaches.

But headaches are all there is. I picked up some whole grain flour tortillas recently that were quite attractive. They looked appealing, had 4 grams of fiber and only 2 grams of fat per tortilla and were low in sodium and cholesterol. They also said “0 grams trans fat” in a bright colorful logo on the front. Seemed like a nice healthy alternative to bread. When I got them home, no sooner did I flip over the package to look at the ingredients did I see “vegetable shortening/partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” What a disappointment. That they had to be returned to the store!

And this isn’t a fluke occurrence. Take a look at supposedly low-fat ice cream made by Blue Bunny. Brownie chunks or sprinkles mixed in to the ice cream contains trans fat – I found out by reading “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list. The same goes for most ice creams. Yes, it is not a full gram and not even half, but I want to know what I’m putting in my body. Especially when I think I am somehow eating healthier ice cream. As a point of order, I have investigated Edy’s slow-churned light ice cream, and those varieties without chunks or swirls do not have any hidden trans fat and are actually quite tasty. I recommend mixing in your own trans-fat-free mix-ins, if you want to still liven things up. I’ll be posting a list of trans-fat free versions of foods that often have hidden trans fat in an upcoming post.

Lastly, I must address the elephant in the room. Restaurants. Very few restaurants publically display their nutrition facts or ingredients for the world to see. There is an unfortunate reason for this. Much of the food that restaurants serve us – even as healthy alternatives – are loaded with more fat, calories, sodium, cholesterol and yes, trans fat, than I care to even comprehend. New York City has banned trans fat usage in its restaurants and is now just about trans fat free, but in most cities you are not that lucky.

Take McDonald’s, the world’s most popular restaurant and one that has been trying to lessen the nutritional havoc it wreaks on its customers. They actually do post their nutrition facts, and to let you know, anything with the words “burger, shake, burrito, cookie, Mac or Big ‘N Tasty” has anywhere from 0.5 to 2.5 grams of trans fat. But all those zeroes on the rest of the sheet – they might be zeroes and they might be 0.49’s.

Ok so McDonald’s is not a perfect place to use as an example. But with most of the sit-down restaurants we frequent shrouding their nutrition facts in mystery, who knows if there are 10 grams, 0.49 grams or 0 grams in the plates being served us. Even healthy-looking items at restaurants cannot be trusted, as really anything that needs flavor enhancement or shelf-life enhancement is a trans fat pitfall. I say it matters enough that people start asking about trans fat content at restaurants, about using shortening or partially hydrogenated oils, which you should already be looking for on every package you buy to root out the hidden trans fat. It matters to me, and it sure matters to my arteries. And it should probably matter to you and yours as well.

For now, I recommend checking out the book "Eat This, Not That" for some restaurant nutrition expose and tips for getting around it. I will be working my hardest to expose other restaurants and foods with excessive or hidden trans fat in the coming weeks. And in the mean time, I am committing myself to cooking healthy meals for us with as little processed ANYTHING as I can possibly manage. And I’ll be featuring those recipes here, so you can share in the joys of healthy trans-fat-free, low-fat living with me.

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