LOS ANGELES – Scientists finally have some good news about fat in food. Contrary to fears, 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, an analysis finds.
LOS ANGELES – Scientists finally have some good news about fat in food.
Contrary to fears, 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, an analysis finds.
Even the french fry, a longtime dietary scourge, got a healthier remake. But there is still room for improvement, particularly for some items sold in supermarkets that have replaced heart-damaging trans fat with its unhealthy cousin, saturated fat.
A Harvard researcher and a consumer advocacy group examined 83 foods that have had makeovers since 2006 – the year the U.S. federal government began requiring that food labels list the amount of trans fat in packaged products, with New York City becoming the first of several cities to phase them out in restaurants.
Despite the establishment of a trans-fat task force and monitoring program in 2007, Canada has not gone as far toward eliminating trans fats from foods – and its attempts at doing so have been scattershot, to say the least. While British Columbia has banned the substances from restaurants, the city of Calgary annulled its trans-fat ban in 2009 after only a year.
The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association has frowned on a piecemeal approach to the issue, calling for “a national comprehensive solution that includes the entire food chain,” said Mark von Schellwitz, the association’s vice-president for Western Canada.
Trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to liquid oils to harden them for baking or to extend shelf life. With trans fat under attack, food makers and restaurants tinkered with various cooking oil and fat substitutes, trying not to compromise taste and texture. But how healthy are the reincarnations?
Harvard researcher Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) checked grocery products and restaurant chow for fat content. Items studied included margarine, junk food, baked goods and fast food from five popular chains.
The researchers did not do their own chemical testing, but instead used Food and Drug Administration databases, nutrition labels and industry brochures to determine trans fat and saturated fat levels.
Results were published in a letter in the May 27 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Nearly all of the foods analyzed were free, or mostly free, of trans fat. And many companies and restaurants did not spike their saturated fat content when they cut trans fat – 65 per cent of supermarket products and 90 per cent 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,” said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson.
The researchers declined to provide details about the winners and sinners because they plan to publish the full results later. But they did give three examples:
Large order of McDonald’s french fries: Trans fat dropped from 7¼ grams to zero; saturated fat went from 5½ grams to 3½ grams.
Gorton’s Crunchy Golden Fish Sticks: 3 grams of trans fat per serving to zero; saturated fat unchanged at 4 grams. The package lists six sticks per serving.
An Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Donut: 5 grams of trans fat to zero; saturated fat more than doubled from 5 grams to 13 grams.
But just because trans fat is gone from gluttonous foods doesn’t mean they’re healthy, said Dr. David Heber, who heads the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.
“Trans fat or not, a doughnut is still a doughnut. Even Homer Simpson will back me up on that,” said Heber, who had no connection with the research.
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, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
On the Web: New England Journal of Medicine: www.nejm.org
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