Out with trans-fat. In with…?

young girl eating french friesIt’s no secret that trans-fats aren’t good for you. Thanks to new legislation and pressure from health organizations, companies are removing trans-fats from their products. But what are we left with when trans-fats are taken out of processed foods? David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) Program, takes on the issue of trans-fat and healthier alternatives.

Trans-fat, also called partially hydrogenated fat, is an industrial product that entered the food supply in large amounts in the 1970s.  Trans-fat is present largely in many processed foods, ranging from fast food to bakery products.  Due to its artificial structure, trans-fat damages the body in many ways, markedly increasing the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and perhaps obesity. Whereas most other food additives are consumed in trace amounts, a large fast food meal could contain an ounce or more of trans-fat. Trans-fat is, in my opinion, the closest thing to poison in the food supply.

A recent study in New England Journal of Medicine shows that trans-fat can be virtually eliminated from the food supply without causing insurmountable problems for consumers or the food industry.  Indeed, products with reduced or no trans-fat appear to contain a much more healthful distribution of other fats, including mono- and polyunsaturated oils.

Federal law requires food labels to declare the trans-fat content of packaged food. However, there’s a bit of a trick: manufacturers are allowed to say “0 trans-fat” if the amount per serving is as high as 1/2 a gram.  This amount, if consumed several times each day, could add up to dangerous levels.  To be sure a food is truly free of trans-fat, read the ingredient label and don’t buy anything with the phrase “partially hydrogenated.”

Substitution of ANY other nutrient for trans-fat would have beneficial effects from a public health perspective.  However, consumers may not be able to determine by looking at the label what substitutions have taken place for any specific product.  As a general guideline, choose foods that look as close to ones found in nature as possible.  If a product is loaded with unpronounceable ingredients, just don’t buy it.

Dr. Ludwig talks about good fats vs. bad fats

Dr. Ludwig talks about trans fats

For more information about childhood obesity prevention, check out Dr. Ludwig’s book, Ending the Food Fight: Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/Fake Food World.

Also check out this recent New York Times article, in which Dr. Ludwig explores how pediatricians should give nutritional advice even as they struggle with their own weight.