It's a little scary when the government steps in to ban restaurants from cooking with an ingredient still found in foods sold at the grocery store. That's what New York State did when it approved an amendment forcing eateries and even food carts to phase out artificial trans fats—also called partially hydrogenated oils—used to make many of our favorite guilty pleasures (doughnuts, French fries, pastries).
This past summer, the law went into full effect. All foods prepared and served in New York eateries now have to contain fewer than 0.5 grams of the trans fat per serving. Recently, the state of California followed suit, outlawing use of any trans fats in the preparation of restaurant meals (effective 2010) and baked goods (effective 2011). What makes these fats so dangerous to our diet? Katherine Tallmadge, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, explains and, because trans fats can still be found in packaged foods, shows you how to protect yourself when you're shopping in the supermarket.
What Are Trans Fats?
"Artificial trans fats are vegetable oils that have had hydrogen atoms added so they turn from liquid into solid," says Tallmadge. "Food manufacturers like to use them because they're cheap, give products a longer shelf life and enhance the flavor and texture of foods—for instance, they make cookies crispier and pie crusts flakier. Years after they were invented, we discovered that trans fats deliver a double whammy to our health. They both raise LDL (artery-clogging bad cholesterol that leads to heart attacks) and, in large amounts, decrease HDL (fat-clearing good cholesterol)." The American Heart Association also links trans fats to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Are Bans the Answer?
Not necessarily, says Tallmadge. The restrictions aren't better for consumers if, in order to comply with new rules, fast-food cooks and restaurant chefs replace trans fats with lard or palm oil, which is high in saturated fat (this raises blood levels of LDL and total cholesterol, heart-disease risk factors).
The real solution, says Tallmadge, is knowing how the food you're eating was prepared and substituting heart-healthy oils for trans-fats-loaded shortenings and stick margarines when cooking. "It can be done," she says. "I've seen recipes for chocolate cake that call for olive oil. And walnut oil works well in cookies and pancakes or you can try peanut oil with French fries.
Here's a list of heart-healthy oils to keep handy when shopping:
* Nut (like hazelnut, peanut, or walnut)
* Sunflower, corn or soybean
Label Smarts: What to Scan For
The trans-fats bans don't include packaged foods, so be your own health inspector and take a close look at a product's packaging before adding it to your shopping cart. You're looking for products containing zero grams of trans fats. But be aware: A product can advertise "0 trans fats!" if it has 0.5g or less per serving, so also be sure to check the ingredients list for partially hydrogenated oils.
The American Heart Association recommends that less than 1 percent of daily calories come from trans fats. Based on a diet of 2,000 a day, that's 20 calories (less than 2g) max. Still, it's not enough to eliminate trans fats—you want to look at the saturated fat line as well. The American Diabetes Association recommends that no more than 7 percent of your total calories be saturated fat—for many people, that is about 15g a day.