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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Trans fats: Arriving soon on a label near you
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By Janet Hunt and Ashleigh Milbrath

Trans fats are the newest edition to the Nutrition Facts Label on our foods. As of January, the Food and Drug Administration is requiring manufacturers to list trans fat on the label (just below the total fat and saturated fat) as well as some nutrition supplement labels.

Before this year, manufacturers were required to list the amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, cholesterol and certain vitamins/minerals in a single serving on the label.

Clearly, not all fats are alike. Saturated fats, which are of animal origin, usually are solid at room temperature. Considered to be more unhealthy fats, saturated fats are found in meat, poultry, and dairy products, as well as processed and fast foods.

Unsaturated fats, which are of vegetable origin, are liquid at room temperature. These are considered to be more healthy fats monounsaturated fats are found in olive, peanut and canola oils, and polyunsaturated fats are found in corn, safflower, soybean, sunflower and fish oils.

Trans fats do not occur naturally in food oils or fats but are formed during food processing, when liquid oils are made into solid fats such as shortening or margarine. This occurs through a chemical process called hydrogenation that yields relatively firm and stable fat products.

In other words, trans fat is found mainly in processed foods, including vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods, doughnuts, french fries and other foods made with, or fried in, partially hydrogenated oils.

The new label requirement applies to any food item that contains 0.5 grams or more of trans fat in one serving. This should make it easy to identify foods high in trans fats, but an additional word of caution is needed.

A product can claim to have zero trans fats and still contain a small amount of trans fat per serving. Again, the food producer only has to list on the label quantities of trans fat that are at least 0.5 grams per serving. This can be rather deceptive. For instance, if the product actually contains 0.4 grams of trans fat per serving, and there are five servings per bag, a person easily could consume 2 grams of trans fat without realizing it.

But there is another way to identify if trans fats are in a product look at the ingredients listed on the label. If the words shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or hydrogenated vegetable oil appear under the ingredients list, the food contains trans fat. In addition, such listings are in rank order ingredients with the highest content levels appear first. So, the earlier in the listing that a trans fat-containing ingredients appears, the more of the particular ingredient is included in the product.

Consuming 1 or 2 grams of trans fat may seem trivial, but because there is no benefit to consuming trans fat, it is recommended that intake be minimal. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that within three years, the new trans fat labeling will prevent from 600 to 1,200 cases of coronary heart disease and 250 to 500 related deaths.

Trans fat teams up with saturated fat to raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Excess LDL cholesterol levels increase a person's risk of heart disease. Dietary cholesterol also can contribute to an increase in LDL cholesterol. Therefore, it is advisable to minimize one's intake of saturated fat, trans fat and dietary cholesterol.

On the label, dietary cholesterol and saturated fat are considered low if the percent of daily value is 5 percent or less and high if the daily value exceeds 20 percent. There are no limits set for the amount of trans fat a person can eat in a day; however, it is recommended that we consume as little trans fat as possible.

Not all fat is "bad fat". Fat is an essential part of our daily diet, needed for proper growth, development and maintenance of good health. While cooking, fat enhances taste and satiety.

However, to minimize the amount of saturated and trans fat, it is important to cut down on the amount of hydrogenated and processed foods and select lean or low fat meats and dairy products. Heart-healthy fat alternatives include the monounsaturated fats found in olive and canola oils, as well as polyunsaturated fats found in soybean, corn, sunflower oils and nuts, seeds, and fish.

The bottom line: Minimize the amount of saturated and trans fats you consume. But don't completely exclude fat from your diet; your body needs fat like a car needs oil; we just have to make sure we're putting the right kinds of oil in our car.

More information on trans fat can be found at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/transfat.html.

Milbrath, a UND dietetics student from Owatonna, Minn., helped Hunt, a research nutritionist at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, write this month's column. The center provides learning experiences for UND dietetics students during their senior year.

Last Modified: 5/11/2006