Good riddance to Franken-Fats! Thanks to a new Food and Drug Administration ruling, food makers must phase out the use of artificial trans fats over the next three years. That’s big news for your heart, because this change could prevent 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and other heart events every year, saving up to 7,000 lives!
But, like Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” So here’s what you can do in the meantime to sidestep trans fats still lurking in food, and what you should know about fats that are stepping in as a replacement.
Keep reading labels. During the three-year phaseout, you’ll still find trans fats in processed foods. Check the Nutrition Facts panel for trans fats content, but don’t stop there. Under current FDA rules, food makers can claim “0 trans fats” as long as the product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving. That can add up to trouble for your arteries and heart. So read the ingredients list, too. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated fat” or “partially hydrogenated oil,” there are traces of trans fats in the food. Make this a continuing habit, because food companies will be petitioning the FDA for exemptions to allow trans fats to stay in some foods.
Zero trans fats doesn’t mean heart-healthy. Since 2006, when the FDA required the listing of trans fats content on Nutrition Facts labels, Americans have consumed 80 percent less trans fats, and we know what food companies have replaced it with. When Harvard Medical School researchers checked 83 brand-name packaged and restaurant foods reformulated to remove trans fats, they found that over 90 percent had less total fat in their new recipes. That’s good news, but it doesn’t magically convert the types of foods that typically contain trans fats into health foods! Tub margarines, packaged cookies and crackers, fast-food fries and burgers are less heart-threatening than they used to be, but they still pack lots of calories and artery-clogging saturated fat.
The jury’s still out on some trans fats replacements. Trans fats alternatives include controversial tropical oils like palm and coconut, a new type of processed fat called interesterified oil and, in some cases, butter and lard. While we know that vegetable oils (olive, canola, sunflower and soy, for example) can be healthy replacements and that animal fats can raise heart, cancer and brain dysfunction risks, we know less about the others.
Palm and coconut oil, for example, might or might not be better for you than trans fats, because they contain large amounts of saturated fat. Two tablespoons of palm oil has 22 grams of saturated fat, compared with 14 grams in the same amount of butter! In one review, researchers found that people who replaced trans fats with palm oil improved their cholesterol profile, but people who used vegetable oils had even better numbers. Palm oil has another downside: Increased use is destroying rain forests in Indonesia and Malaysia, home to orangutans and Sumatran tigers, as lands are burned for palm plantations.
Coconut oil’s unique type of saturated fat, lauric acid, might explain why this tropical oil can boost levels of heart-healthy HDLs. But it does cause (in animal studies) gene changes that promote inflammation, especially in the brain. It’s also high in calories and clearly not as healthy as olive or canola oil.
Meanwhile, the biggest question mark is “interesterified oil,” which is showing up on the ingredient lists of some processed foods as a trans fats stand-in. Produced by linking saturated fatty acids to vegetable oil molecules, this newer fat hasn’t been well-studied. But early research hints that it might increase levels of heart-threatening LDLs, reduce levels of healthy HDLs and even mess with blood sugar.
Find healthy replacements. Use the time to transition away from all saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and added sweeteners. Replace junky foods with sliced veggies, your favorite fruit, nonfat, no-sugar-added yogurt, nuts and healthy dips.
Mehmet Oz, M.D., is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D., is chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into “The Dr. Oz Show” or visit sharecare.com.