Consumers should continue monitoring their consumption of trans fats, while the FDA completes its mission to phase them out of grocery stores.
MANHATTAN, Kan. – As the holiday season approaches, many thoughts run through people’s minds, thoughts that might include food, family, gatherings and gift wish lists. Considering the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent news that it plans to phase out the use of trans fats in foods, perhaps the perfect gift for someone this holiday season is a hot air popcorn popper.
Maybe surprisingly, some brands of microwave popcorn include trans fats. A trans fat starts out as liquid oil, an unsaturated fat, which is then treated in a process that adds hydrogen to become more solid, like a saturated fat, according to the FDA. Partially solidifying the oil makes it more stable.
“Stability is what has been sought by food processors, because trans fats enable products to have a long shelf life,” said Sandy Procter, registered dietitian and extension specialist in human nutrition for K-State Research and Extension. “Fat provides the texture and flavor that we love, the creamy smoothness and all the other traits that fats allow in foods.”
Food processors have learned that by adding hydrogen to oil in their foods, the product stays fresher longer, Procter said. But freshness comes at a cost to human health.
The FDA’s plan to phase out trans fats in foods is meant to help save lives. Eating too many trans fats can cause serious health problems, such as coronary heart disease, which can lead to stroke and heart attacks. In its announcement, the FDA said it plans to work with food companies by allowing a comment period before implementing a timeline to completely eliminate trans fats.
Procter said the announcement was not unexpected, as there have been discussions about trans fats since the early 2000s. In 2006, food companies were required to list the amount of trans fats per serving on food labels. Many companies have already adjusted their formulations to exclude trans fats, and many restaurants have eliminated the use of trans fats in meal preparation.
“We’ve seen a decrease in the number of trans fats consumed in the U.S.,” Procter said. “People are reading labels. Food processors are responding. We have really decreased the amount of trans fats out there, but we can do a lot better.”
The problem with trans fats, Procter said, is almost all are formed in processing. A few are naturally occurring in foods, such as some dairy products and meats. The naturally occurring ones are not the ones to be worried about.
“Usually the rule of thumb is, if the food is processed, it more likely has trans fats than if it is the more natural version of the product,” Procter said. “I think having shelf life is a good thing, but on the other hand, some of these things that don’t have quite as long of a shelf life are probably more natural and healthful.”
Popcorn in its natural state is a healthy snack, which makes it a perfect example, she said. When processors add trans fats, a once healthy snack that is a whole grain, low in calories and rich in fiber, becomes an unhealthy one.
“It’s not the popcorn we can’t have,” Procter said. “It’s the added fat that is the problem, and that’s how it is for most processed foods.”
Other foods that might include trans fats are fried foods, pie crusts, cookie dough, frosting, pre-made foods in the freezer section and margarine—a popular product over the years, because many people were worried about the saturated fat in butter.
“There are spreads that don’t have trans fats at all if you’re not wanting to go toward butter over margarine,” Procter said. “But, many people, including chefs and even people focused on nutrition, know that sometimes just a small amount of butter adds the flavor, texture and spreadability—the things that people really want. So a small amount of butter may satisfy you. It would contain saturated fat, but you would still be avoiding trans fats.”
Advice for consumers
All people need a certain amount of fat, Procter said, and the goal and the guidance from the U.S. dietary guidelines is for people to consume as few trans fats as possible.
“There isn’t any reason we need trans fats,” Procter said. “Unlike most foods, it’s not a matter of decreasing but still needing some. With trans fats, if you can avoid all that come about through processing, you’re doing well.”
Procter said she suggests that consumers continue to read labels and think about healthy substitutions, such as Greek yogurt or sour cream instead of margarine, or oil or applesauce for baking, in place of shortenings that include trans fats. Because so many trans fats are consumed through processed foods that are already prepared, mixed and packaged, creating meals at home can help prevent consuming trans fats.
“One of the things that is really important to consumers is the more that you fix and prepare foods yourself, the more you can avoid trans fats,” Procter said. “You can easily prepare things without trans fats if you are the one following the recipe and reading the labels.”
While a few foods might not be brought back without trans fats after the phase-out, Procter said she believes that companies will continue reworking their formulations to keep popular foods on grocery store shelves.
For more information about types of fats and how to make healthier food choices, read “What’s Fat All About?” available through the K-State Research and Extension bookstore.