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Trans-Fat Cuts Lead To Healthier Food

May 27, 2010

Scientists have found that most food manufacturers and restaurants did not just swap one bad ingredient for another when they trimmed artery-clogging trans fats from products and menus.

A Harvard researcher and a consumer advocacy group found that even the French fry got a healthier remake.  However, there is still room for improvement, particularly for some items sold in supermarkets, which replaced heart-damaging trans fat with its unhealthy cousin, saturated fat.

The team examined 83 foods that had makeovers since 2006.  That year was when the federal government started to require food labels to list the amount of trans fat in packaged products and New York City became the first of several cities to phase them out in restaurants.

Trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to liquid oils to harden them for baking or to extend shelf life.  Food makers and restaurants tinkered with various cooking oil and fat substitutes, trying not to compromise taste and texture.

Harvard researcher Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian and the Center for Science in the Public Interest checked items in supermarkets and restaurant food for fat content.  Items like margarine, junk food, baked goods and fast food from five popular chains.

The team did not do their own chemical testing. Instead they used Food and Drug Administration databases, nutrition labels and industry brochures to determine trans fat and saturated fat levels instead.

Results were published in a letter in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.

Almost all of the foods analyzed were free or mostly free of trans fat.  Many companies and restaurants did not spike their saturated fat content where they cut trans fat.  Sixty-five percent of supermarket products and 90 percent of restaurant fare contained saturated fat levels that were lower, unchanged or only slightly higher than before.

“Companies almost always can reformulate their food to have a healthier balance of fats,” CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson told the Associated Press.

The team did not provide details about the winners because they said they plan to publish the results later.

Dr. David Heber, who heads the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, said that just because trans fat is gone from gluttonous foods does not mean they are healthy.

“Trans fat or not, a doughnut is still a doughnut. Even Homer Simpson will back me up on that,” Heber, who had no connection with the research, told AP.

The American Heart Association recommends that people limit trans fats to less than 2 grams per day and less than 16 grams of saturated fat, which was based on a 2,000-calorie a day diet.

Two foundations funded the report.

CSPI made headlines as the “food police” targeting movie theater popcorn and fettuccine Alfredo.  The foundation has pushed for government restrictions on trans fat.

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