No matter how you look at it, trans fats are bad for your health — nearly every major health organization agrees. On Tuesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it will require food companies to phase out artificial trans fats within the next three years.
In a recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group, at least 27 percent of the 84,000 foods in their Food Scores database contained some amount of the artery-clogging fat. Even more disturbing: Only two percent of those products admitted to containing trans fats on the label — a problem that may persist even after the FDA’s ban.
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“The Institute of Medicine is pretty clear that there is no safe level of trans fats. You want to keep it as low as is possible,” EWG nutritionist Dawn Undurraga says. “Trans fat is worse than saturated fat in terms of heart health because it lowers the good cholesterol and raises the bad cholesterol, so it’s kind of a double whammy there.” It’s also been linked to inflammation and diabetes, Undurraga notes.
Why Trans Fats Are Sneaking Into Your Snacks
So how are trans fats creeping into foods — without appearing on nutrition labels? There’s a labeling loophole. “The FDA definition for ‘trans fat free’ is below 0.5 grams,” Undurraga says. In other words, a food can still claim to contain ‘zero grams of trans fat’ even if it contains .4 grams per serving of the bad stuff. Considering that the World Health Organization warns that adults should consume no more than two grams of saturated fat per day if any (and children, even less), “it’s easy for these trans fats to add up really quickly,” Undurraga says.
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It’s not that we don’t have the technology to limit trans fats in foods — it’s possible to detect amounts as small as .1 grams per serving, Undurraga says. The FDA’s .5-gram limit for trans fats is from 1991, based on the level of detection available at that time. Now, groups like the EWG are calling for the U.S. to catch up to countries like Canada, where trans fat is restricted to .2 grams per serving.
Despite the FDA’s recent announcement, the loophole that allows foods with .5 grams of trans fat to be considered ‘trans fat free’ is unlikely to change. “Our concern is that without reform to the labeling loophole, consumers will always be in the dark,” Undurraga says.
How to Spot Trans Fat
Tracking down hidden trans fats can be hard. Found in partially hydrogenated oils, refined oils, soybean oils, emulsifiers (which are often meant to reduce fats in foods) and even natural and artificial flavors and colors, these trace amounts of trans fats could be hiding in many processed goods. “It’s really only the food scientists who know and with such a broad labeling loophole it’s easy to hide in any different ingredient,” Undurraga says.
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While trans fats aren’t good for anyone, children may suffer the most from exposure to small amounts. “Kids need to have nutrient-dense diets; they don’t have room in their diets for trans fats,” Undurraga says. “And the fact that they could be getting significant amounts [of trans fats], when parents think they’re feeding them something that has none, is a problem.” In fact, some of the foods identified as the worst for hidden exposure to trans fats are kids’ foods including graham crackers and fruit snacks.
Plus, considering that many of us suffer from portion distortion, it can be easy to accidentally gobble down tons of trans fats in just one sitting. “I found a label for Jolly Time popcorn, and per serving it has zero grams trans fat — but if you eat whole bag you’re getting 1.5 grams,” Undurraga says. “It’s easy for that to happen.” Until better labeling is in place, use tools like the Food Scores database to see if what’s in your pantry carries any warning labels — or stick to a diet of whole foods as often as possible.
Originally published May 28, 2015. Updated June 16, 2015.