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The Secret of Trans Fat

--by Kevin Kolodziejski

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Elementary question: When does 1.5 plus 1 plus .5 equal 5?

Unfortunate answer: When food companies have trans fatty acids to hide.

A few years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required food companies to label nutritional facts more comprehensively, a labeling that featured the percentage of the daily value of carbohydrates, protein, fats, sodium, and certain vitamins as well as the standard amount per serving in grams.

Heralded as a breakthrough in nutritional awareness, the labeling change gives the consumer much necessary information--except when it comes to fats.

Although some companies give information on monounsaturated fat (the "good" type) and polyunsaturated fat (the "neutral" type) voluntarily, only total fat and saturated fat (the "bad" fat) must appear on the label. What do they all leave out? The fourth type of fat, trans fat. Trans fat is man-made from trans fatty acids, a practice which leaves label readers with impossible math problems (How can 1.5 plus 1 plus .5 equal 5?) to ponder.

Why don't companies label trans fat? Because research suggests that trans fat is as bad for your health as saturated fat. And because the food companies keep its existence quiet, it's potentially worse.

What the Experts Say

Trans fat is such a health concern, in fact, that prominent researchers such as Dr. Walter Willett, the chairman of the nutrition program at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. William Castelli, the director of the Framingham Cardiovascular Wellness Institute, and Dr. Henry Blackburn, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health have all urged the FDA to make the labeling of trans fat mandatory. But consumers haven't followed suit. How can they complain about something that doesn't appear on the label?

What the Consumer Needs to Know

Just what is a trans fatty acid?

According to Dr. Mary Enig, author of Dr. Enig's Trans Fatty Acid Report (second edition 1995), trans fat is monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat altered by partial hydrogenation.

Confused? Hydrogenation makes the oils that are naturally liquid at room temperature - monounsaturates and polyunsaturates - solid. Unfortunately, this process modifies the fat so that it is closer to saturated fat than the original.

In fact, the transformation is so severe that trans fat can not be legally labeled as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat on packages.

The Conundrum

Since trans fat can't be legally labeled as a monounsaturated or a polyunsaturated fat and chemically it isn't a saturated fat, food companies don't list it at all. That's how we get the aforementioned math problem: 1.5 plus 1 plus .5 equals 5.

Wondering why I keep using the same set of numbers? They're from the nutrition facts found on a Triscuits® box. Triscuits® are marketed as a healthy alternative to crackers. It is highlighted on the box that they are baked whole wheat, contain no cholesterol, and have only 1 gram of saturated fat per serving.

Sounds pretty good, huh?

But Triscuits® are 32 percent fat (calories 140; calories from fat 45). And when you add all three types of fat together and you're missing 2 grams. Guess what that means? There are two grams of trans fat in each serving, a fact confirmed by the list of ingredients: whole wheat, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and salt.

So you're consuming 3 grams of bad fat, not 1, with each serving (only seven wafers) and Nabisco's® claims of producing a healthy snack sound pretty shallow. But if Nabisco® is using trans fat, how bad can it be, you wonder? Consuming trans fat lowers HDL, the "good" cholesterol, and raises LDL, the "bad" cholesterol, and increases total serum cholesterol levels.

The Ultimate Irony

Nabisco® can legally print no cholesterol on their Triscuit® box, yet eating the product increases production of cholesterol in the body. Trans fat increases the risk of diabetes and decreases the response of the red blood cells to insulin in diabetics. It also reduces the immune response while increasing the formation of free radicals in your body.

Furthermore, well-known researchers Ancel Keys and Dr. Mary Enig have proven a statistical relationship between cancer mortality and vegetable fat consumption in the United States, and trans fatty acids are the predominant way we ingest vegetable fat.

Hmm? Is it any wonder that food companies try to keep consumers in the dark about trans fatty acids?

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