EDIT 2015 – “trans fat” has officially been banned by the FDA (after they allowed it in foods for decades, harumph). But you should still avoid fake fats, including anything “hydrogenated” or “interesterified.” That scary word is the “new” man-made fat replacing trans fats in many products. Yuck. Trans fats are technically only the “partially hydrogenated” ones, but I don’t trust hydrogenation with my food at all…
This week we’re looking at a group of Super Foods that are all monounsaturated fats: avocados, olive oil, and peanut butter. It’s pretty widely accepted that these are “healthy fats”, and I’ll give you some Food for Thought and some ways to use these fun foods as the week wears on. For your mission, however, I want to start a journey of getting the bad fats out of your diet.
Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to learn how to find trans fats in your cupboards. Bonus points for starting to root them out of your life!
If you’re already a trans-fat-free household, focus this week on finding new ways to include monounsaturated fats from foods like olive oil, avocado, and peanut butter in your diet.
Controversial Fat Information Overload
There is a ton of controversy about good fats/bad fats out there. You can find conflicting research and opinions that will boggle your mind as you try to figure out whether you should eat butter, canola oil, vegetable spreads, etc. There is one fat that everyone – even the US government – can agree on, however: trans fats. They’re nasty little buggers, and they’re slowly killing our country via heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and more.
What is a Trans Fat?
Trans fats are created when a liquid oil is made into a solid oil by a process called “hydrogenation”. You can find the science behind the change here or here, but without going into too much, hydrogenation changes the molecular structure of the fat. It breaks bonds and moves an atom, which starts to sound kind of sci-fi and not something I want to eat. I like to eat things that grow in the ground or on a farm, personally! I trust that kind of real food. If you really want to be grossed out, read a cool detailed description of the hydrogenation process at the Weston A. Price Foundation.
Trans fats were created 50 or 60 years ago for a couple reasons:
- Longer shelf life
- Inexpensive solid fats for baking
- Healthier than butter and lard (they THOUGHT back then!)
Why Trans Fats are Bad for You
“Trans fats cause significant and serious lowering of HDL (good) cholesterol and a significant and serious increase in LDL (bad) cholesterol; make the arteries more rigid; cause major clogging of arteries; cause insulin resistance; cause or contribute to type 2 diabetes; and cause or contribute to other serious health problems.” (From Ban Trans Fats, a website worth visiting)
Because trans fats are man-made, the body doesn’t recognize them and doesn’t really know what to do with them. They get stored (stored fat, anyone?). They attack the arteries (arterial plaque sound like fun?). They are the worst kind of fat you can eat.
How Much Trans Fat is Safe?
None. Good recommendations say don’t eat it, ever (Women’s Health). Mediocre recommendations say a few grams a day or to keep it “as low as possible” (FDA, 2005). Some countries (Denmark) and even U.S. cities (New York City and others) have totally banned trans fats in public eateries. (Read this article for more fascinating facts.)
How to Find a Trans Fat on an Ingredient Label
In 2006, the FDA began requiring trans fat to be included in the nutrition facts on food packages. You would think, then, that you’d find the amount of trans fat listed on the label. However, there’s a nasty loophole that could trick you into eating more than a few grams of trans fat without blinking an eye.
The FDA allows food manufacturers to list “0g Trans Fat” on the label if there is .49g or less in a serving. The companies can then manipulate the serving size or simply reduce, instead of eliminate, the amount of trans fat in their foods, and still trick consumers with the “0g Trans Fat” label. No fair, I say! You could buy a box of crackers that says “No Trans Fat!” in a big, bright starburst on the front, eat cheese and crackers for lunch and end up with a few grams of trans fat in your system, totally unawares.
Here’s what you really need to look for:
If you see any of those words in the ingredients list, your item has trans fat in it, regardless of the number on the nutrition facts label.
This is obviously a lot more work than checking the nutrition facts for a number. No fair, but necessary. Heart disease is a lot of work, too! You’ll learn to scan ingredients quickly for the evil words with a little practice.
Is Partially Hydrogenated Oil Safer than Fully Hydrogenated?
No. Trans fat is trans fat. If you see the word hydrogenated, stay away from it!
Places Trans Fats sneak into my House (Eek!)
- Tortillas (definitely the hardest one – it’s really difficult to find tortillas, even expensive ones that I don’t want to buy anyway, that don’t have trans fat. One corn tortilla I found with no hydrogenated oil had parabens in them, a dangerous compound most often found in personal products like shampoo. Yuck.)
- Graham Crackers and Saltine Crackers
- Refried Beans
- Shortening for baking (until recently)
- Cake Mixes and Frosting
- Brownie Mixes
- Eating out…this is where I really rely on the 80/20 rule and the Promise of my Meal Blessing! I ask enough questions about where the fish is from and if the butter is real or fake that I can’t handle asking about all the ingredients all the time!
- Are there others? I hope not, but probably…
Random True Story: The last time we were out to eat, I asked the waitress if she knew where the salmon was from. She disdainfully said she “could” ask the cooks, but they probably didn’t know either. I glowingly replied, “Yes, thank you, I’d really like that.” She came back to assure me that “all the salmon is farmed,” and seemed a bit disgusted that that wasn’t the answer I was looking for. When I ordered my potato (restaurant-style baked potatoes are my weakness!!!) with my Tilapia, I asked for butter, no sour cream, and almost as an afterthought asked, “Is it real butter?” She visibly rolled her eyes, said, “It’s not real butter. NObody uses real butter anymore,” and walked away. I kid you not! I turned to my husband and quipped, “Then why do they call it “butter” on the menu?” Just to make sure her tip remained painfully low, she also treated it like it was my mother-in-law’s fault when she was served a baked potato after having ordered steamed broccoli. When the mistake was politely pointed out, the waitress flipped open her order pad in a huff as if to say, “You probably ordered the wrong thing, let me check!” Gee-zooey! You can’t get real butter or real service sometimes!
A few Substitution Ideas (if you’re ready for step two)
- Tortillas – so hard to find them without trans fat without costing an arm and a leg! I make homemade tortillas now.
- Check labels on pretzels and snacks – they don’t ALL have hydrogenated oils – sourdough pretzels are usually safe!
- Make your own graham crackers or thin wheat crackers
- Check refried bean labels, too. Organic store brand around here just has beans and peppers in it. Or make your own Homemade Refried Beans.
- Get rid of the shortening! I just use butter or coconut oil and have liked the results so far! There are “trans-fat-free” shortenings, but I haven’t tried them or looked into how they’re made.
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Now it’s your turn: Where do the trans fats sneak into your home? What products is it hardest to avoid trans fats in? Share some tips, too, for avoiding trans fats and finding better substitutes. Thanks for contributing!
Want to know how butter and margarine stack up vs. “heart healthy” spreads? Ready to accept a mission to switch to butter? Join us all this season for A Fat Full Fall at Kitchen Stewardship. Don’t risk missing important information!
Other Super Food Health Benefits: