By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Starting in 2006, nutrition labels will include trans fats content for thousands of foods and some nutrition supplements.
The Food and Drug Administration announced the change Tuesday, and health officials say the information will help consumers make healthier food choices when they head to the supermarket.
So what are trans fats and why do Americans need to add them to their "do not eat" list?
Trans fats, also called trans fatty acids or TFAs, are created during food processing when manufacturers hydrogenate, or "fluff up," saturated fats to create more solid fats that will help foods like donuts, snack crackers and cookies taste better and last longer.
And TFAs should be avoided because they cause cholesterol levels to rise almost as much as saturated fats (the kind in meat and butter) do.
The label ruling comes as some food manufacturers and restaurants are voluntarily cutting the amount of trans fats in their products. Frito-Lay recently announced that it is eliminating all trans fats in its salty snack products, including Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos, and fast-food giant McDonald's announced it will change the type of oil used at its restaurants to reduce trans fats in french fries.
Some frequently asked questions on trans fats:
Question: Where are trans fats most likely to be found?
Answer: Processed foods and fried foods are the most likely suspects, says Lauren Niemes, executive director of the Nutrition Council of Greater Cincinnati.
"The primary sources are going to be snack crackers, cookies and baked goods. With frozen pies and pot pies, the crust is very high in trans fatty acids.
Q: Since the new labels won't be mandatory until 2006, what should consumers look for in the meantime as they try to make healthy choices?
A: Niemes advises checking the ingredient list on food products for the words "partially hydrogenated fats." And the higher it is in the list, the more the product contains.
"The other thing they should look for is how much total fat is listed," she says. "Look for a high-fat food and see if partially hydrogenated fats are high on the list, and if they are, make another choice. But if it's a low-fat food and it lists partially hydrogenated fats, I wouldn't necessarily eliminate it."
Q: What's the maximum amount of TFAs consumers should get in a day?
A: As little as possible. The National Academy of Sciences' most recent recommendation doesn't include a specific number, but the academy does say there is no safe level of trans fats, and that the fats provide no known health benefit.
As a rule of thumb, Niemes says, consumers should try to keep their combined saturated fat and TFA intake to less than 10 percent of their total calories for the day. That works out to a maximum combined total of 20 grams of saturated fat and TFAs per day.
Consumers can learn more about trans fats in food at the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Web site, www.cspinet.org.
Q: Is there such a thing as a "good" fat?
A: Yes. Monounsaturated (olive, canola and peanut oils) and polyunsaturated (soybean, corn, safflower and sunflower oils) won't clog your arteries. Saturated fats (milk, cheese, ice cream, meat, coconut oil, palm oil) and trans fats (margarine, shortening, french fries, fried chicken, cookies, crackers and doughnuts) will clog your arteries.
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