Although society is generally coming around to the fact that some types of fat can be good, trans fats unequivocally do not fall in that category. Research shows that eating trans fats can increase "bad" cholesterol and can raise your risk of heart disease. For these reasons, the FDA has stated that they're not "generally recognized as safe for consumption" (yeah, no kidding). However, some people think that the FDA's warnings and regulations don't go far enough. Members of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene published a brief in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease in which they argue that the administration hasn't made enough headway in its efforts to reduce trans fats. The brief focuses on the fact that the label "zero grams of trans fat" isn't necessarily true...and may in fact be dangerously misleading.
Although many consumers may not realize it, companies are actually allowed to label products that contain between zero and 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving as having "zero grams" of the harmful ingredient, per the FDA'S current labeling guidelines. So the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene set out to determine how common it actually is for foods labeled "trans fat-free" to still be made with the bad-for-you fats. Quick primer: Trans fats naturally occur in small amounts in meat and dairy products. More troubling, though, are the artificial trans fats created when hydrogen is added to liquid oil to make it solid; these are known as partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs).
Researchers examined the ingredient lists of 4,340 top-selling U.S. packaged foods, ranging from frozen meals to baked goods and snacks, looking for PHOs. They then used this information to estimate the trans fat content of each item. Out of the samples studied, nine percent contained the unhealthy man-made ingredients. The shocking part? Of the products with PHOS, nearly 85 percent claimed zero grams of trans fat per serving on the packaging.
Here's the scary thing: Products that fall under this cutoff could have anywhere from trace amounts of trans fats to nearly 0.5 grams per serving--but it's difficult to know how much they contain since the packaging simply says there are zero trans fats. "This labeling is cause for concern because consumers, seeing the zero grams trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label, are probably unaware that they are consuming trans fat, "says the report. Surprisingly, the food category with the most products containing PHOs in this research was seasoned processed potatoes.
Fortunately, the FDA is considering a ruling that would ban products containing PHOs unless the FDA has made and explicit determination that they are safe. Until that ruling passes, though, you best bet is to realize that the claim "trans-fat-free" can't be taken at face value--and to check the ingredients list on packaged foods, looking for PHOs and steering clear of anything that lists the harmful fats.