During my undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, I began to study the natural and artificial compounds that exist in our everyday foods. Of these compounds, trans fats were most interesting to me because only a small amount can cause detrimental health consequences. During medical school, I decided to pursue my findings further and ultimately produced a paper, Deception of Trans Fats on Food and Drug Administration Food Labels: A Proposed Revision to the Presentation of Trans Fats on Food Labels, which was published in the American Journal of Health Promotion.
The Zero Trans Fats Myth
As I read more about the topic of trans fats on nutrition labels, I was astonished by what I found. I learned that there could be enough trans fats hiding in our food to exceed the suggested daily limit, which is 1 to 2 grams per day, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even some cancers.
Specifically, I found out that if there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, the food company could label it as having 0 grams of trans fat per serving. This means that there could be up to 0.49 grams in one serving of food and it can say 0 grams on the label. Knowing this, one can easily see how a few servings could cause you to exceed the daily suggested limit of industrial trans fat.
Decoding Nutrition Labels
So, where are these trans fats? They are hiding in the fine print of the ingredients label as “partially hydrogenated” and “hydrogenated” oils. These oils are commonly found in foods that companies make to have a long shelf life. This includes many cookies, crackers, and ready-made meals. Sometimes in the ingredient list, “fully hydrogenated” oils also appear. These do not contain any trans fats because they are made of pure saturated fat. These fats are also unhealthy, although not as harmful as trans fat, and consumption should be limited.
In my research, I suggest a revision to nutrition labeling that would provide truth in the labeling of trans fats by indicating a more exact amount of trans fat in each serving. Hopefully, this could be a change made by the FDA, as the FDA now recognizes that there are more sensitive methods to assess the level of trans fat.
Until food companies provide more truth in labeling, avoid being deceived by advertisements of “0 grams of trans fat per serving,” and follow these simple rules:
- Inspect the nutrition label and ingredients list of all foods that are packaged for extended shelf life
- When the words “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” appear next to an oil on the label, avoid this food completely
- When the words “fully hydrogenated” appear on the label, consider limiting consumption of this food product
Brandt EJ. Deception of trans fats on Food and Drug Administration food labels: a proposed revision to the presentation of trans fats on food labels. Am J Health Promot. 2011;25(3):157-8.