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Thursday, July 23, 2009

How much Trans Fat is too much?

Last week I talked about how much red meat is too much, and I promised I'd track my meat intake over the course of the week. So now it's time to share the results. I had a grass-fed steak (Delmonico cut) one day, and a cup of chili another day. I estimate that I hit just about 1.5 servings, maybe just a bit more. It was good to be mindful of my red meat intake, and substitute in chicken or fish (or beans) when I could.

But the idea of "how much is too much" started me thinking about trans fats. We all know trans fats are bad, because they raise our level of bad cholesterol (LDL). And if you've been reading my blog, then you know that some food items have trans fats, even though it's not enough per serving to be reported on the "Nutrition Facts" panel. I've had people tell me that they dismiss these amounts as "trivial." And to be honest, I can see why. There's no limit established for trans fat, either as a recommended intake level, or as a recommended maximum level. Consumers are left guessing.

Fortunately, there was a piece released early this year in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Published by C. Nishida and R. Uauy, the paper seeks to establish such a recommendation, which could then be used by the World Health Organization (WHO) throughout the world.

I won't beat around the bush here...the recommendation was that, in order to prevent cardiovascular disease, diets should have a VERY LOW intake of Trans Fats. The definition of "VERY LOW" is explained to be less than 1% of total energy intake. However, I would bolster that by reinforcing the guideline here in the U.S. with is that trans fat intake should be as low as possible (just check the FDA's site - it's there!).

Why? Well, let me explain what most trans fats are. To make trans fats, you must first start with unsaturated fat, like those from many vegetables. The unsaturated oils are then converted into solid fats via partial hydrogenation. This process changes the structure of the unsaturated fats, turning some into trans fats and eliminating the healthy fats from the oil. Many sources now think that trans fats are actually more dangerous to our health than saturated fats.

(There are also naturally occurring trans fats, usually in red meats and similar products. They are not believed to be as dangerous to our health as the fats created via partial hydrogenation.)

Why would someone chemically process good fats to make them unhealthy fats? Two reasons, really. The first is shelf life. Using partially hydrogenated oils allow food to remain "fresh" longer. In other words, it doesn't spoil as quickly. (That's generally a clue that something is unhealthy!) The second is stability of texture and flavor. Products are often softer and chewier when made with trans fats, which is why you find them so often in cookies and other treats. Meanwhile, products made with butter taste great initially, but then get too hard or crumbly after a short while.

So now that you know what trans fats are, and why they're used, lets quantify this 1% limit. If you were eating a 2000 calorie diet, you'd be able to have 20 calories from trans fats each day and be consistent with the limit. At 9 calories per fat gram, that's about 2 grams of trans fats.

If you ate 5 different products that contained .49 g of trans fats (which means that, since .49 g rounds down to 0, these products would show 0 trans fats on the label), you'd be just under your limit. Meanwhile, you'd think you didn't eat any trans fats at all!

Here's how that might happen. Items in bold contain trans fats, but have zero grams of trans fat on their nutrition facts labels:

  • You have a bowl of Fruit Loops for breakfast. Instead of the small servings size listed on the label, you pour yourself a more typical 2-cup serving.
  • Mid-morning, you have a Quaker chewy granola bar as a snack.
  • At lunch, you have a small salad, and crush a serving of Nabisco saltine crackers into a cup of healthy soup.
  • In the afternoon, you sneak a few Girl Scout Cookies when you think no one is watching.
  • You have Chicken Marsala for dinner, accompanied by a whole wheat dinner roll spread with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter(R) Spread Original.
  • Later at night, you much on some Pop Secret popcorn while watching the latest episode of your favorite night-time drama.

All in all, if this is what you ate for a day, you'd probably assume you ate reasonably healthy, except for the cookies. But in truth, not only did you eat a lot of highly processed foods, you also had at least seven servings of trans fats (remember, you had two servings of cereal). It's absolutely reasonable to assume that in your seven servings, you exceeded the 2 g upper limit of the WHO's recommendation.

So when you are choosing foods, remember to look past the nutritional label. While it can be difficult to find packaged products without trans fats, it is possible. Remember to read the ingredients and avoid products with any of the following:

  • Margarine
  • Shortening
  • Partially hydrogenated oils
  • Hydrogenated oils

For instance, while the Quaker chewy granola bars have trans fats, there are Kashi granola bars that do not. Looking for chocolate chip cookies? Chips Ahoy have trans fats, but Keebler do not (watch out for HFCS, though). How about that spread for your roll? Replace it with a small amount of real butter, or use Promise brand products, which uses a small amount of saturated fat instead of trans fats. Want popcorn? Try making it the old-fashioned way, with oil in a pan, or with an air-popper. If microwave popcorn is a must, Orville Redenbacher's Naturals line is completely free of trans fats AND the preservative TBHQ.

Remember, ANY amount of trans fat, if a truly trans-fat free alternative is available, is too much. But if you can keep your total intake to 1% or less per day, you'll be doing better than many others. Just remember that those fractions of a gram can, and do, add up, so read those ingredients.


  1. I am so glad you mentioned the portion issue. Until I started paying attention to labels, I would be fooled that whatever seemed to be in a single serving container was actually a single serving! It's so easy to not pay attention but once you realize the 0.49gm issue, and you eat a larger portion than the container suggests, you're into a full gram or more. Very informative post and a nice way to raise awareness!

  2. Kelley, it's so true! It's one of the things about food manufacturing that makes me very angry. I have to try very hard to pay attention to serving sizes and it's not always easy. So glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for commenting!