SalmonBerry

Stop Spooning Frosting Directly Into Your Mouth

In Nutrition on June 23, 2015 at 3:08 am

“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” ~Michael Pollan

trans fats foods

Foods containing partially-hydrogenated oils.

Last week, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) declared a ban on trans fats or partially-hydrogenated oil (PHOs) in foods and have given food manufacturers three years to phase out the ingredient. My first thought was “I thought trans fats were banned years ago!” and then “Who is still eating trans fats?” and next “Have I been inadvertently eating trans fats?”. It turns out that the answer is “Hell, no!” but my father, a microwave popcorn addict, has been unknowingly consuming 5 grams of trans fats almost nightly for years. Banning a food additive is pretty serious. There must be a mountain of evidence against PHOs.

Soon after these thoughts began batting around in my head, I received a call from a producer at Good Morning San Diego (see my clip here) asking if I could show up at 630am the next day to expertly address the issue of trans fats in our food supply and that I needed to bring props. At 10pm, I’m at my local Vons suspiciously filling my basket with containers of chocolate frosting, boxed donut holes, non-dairy french vanilla creamer, microwave popcorn, packaged cinnamon rolls, frozen pies, and ready-to-bake biscuits looking like I had a bad case of marijuana-induced munchies.

Until recently, trans fats had enjoyed GRAS, “generally recognized as safe”, status from the FDA. This status is given to substances that demonstrate a level of safety for which there is consensus and the substance is widely known. The FDA categorizes food additives – any substance intentionally added to food – based on their GRAS status. Most modern-day foods have been laced with some sort of food additive in order to preserve flavor, modify taste or appearance, and/or extend shelf-life. Some of the additives look scary but are really just the chemical compound name for vitamins and minerals. However, most other additives are chemicals that are basically innocent until proven guilty. Trans fats falls into this category.

In 2006, the FDA enacted new nutrition labeling laws requiring a line item designation of trans fats as a sub-header under Total Fat on the nutrition facts label. Major health advocates such as Harvard’s School of Public Health (HSPH) had been sounding the alarm of PHOs for years and the large body of research at HSPH has shown that high consumption of PHOs raises the risk of high blood lipid levels, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. After Tuesday’s ban declaration, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at HSPH said, “This represents an excellent example where evidence from nutritional research is translated into policies to improve public health.”

Bad press, along with the labeling move by the FDA and combined with New York City’s ban, later in 2006, on restaurants’ ability to use PHOs in deep fried foods, prompted most food manufacturers and restaurants to find alternatives rather than being identified and publicly shamed as using trans fats in their products. Therefore, this affordable fat that increases shelf-life and encourages stability of food products, had already been mostly phased out by the time the FDA announced the ban last week. Hence my confusion as to whether trans fats were still being consumed by myself or anyone else I spoke to on the topic.

me at KUSI

You Stay Classy, San Diego!

As my late night grocery store trip revealed, PHOs can still found in the following foods: anything battered & fried (in the freezer section), packaged baked goods (pastries, pies, cookies, biscuits, crackers), microwave popcorn, margarine and shortening (duh), non-dairy creamers, cake and pancake mixes, and plastic tubs of frosting. Adding to my confusion is the fact that manufacturers are not required to list trans fats on nutrition facts labels if it contains less than 1 gram of trans fat per serving. It is well-known that serving sizes stated on packaged foods are unrealistic (the FDA is currently revamping it’s nutrition facts label due to these concerns and others); therefore, these “small” amounts of PHOs add up and are now considered dangerous. A closer read of the ingredients lists of many packages with 0 grams of trans fats indicated that PHOs were indeed lurking in many products noted by the following words: partially hydrogenated, hydrogenated, or shortening.

Although I was relieved to see that I don’t purchase any of those food items on a regular basis, if at all, I was surprised by the response to my morning news segment. Many of my friends, family and neighbors (even the news anchor) regularly consume these food products and were relieved to be informed and encouraged to read ingredients lists.

I have a rule in my home that all desserts shall be homemade. This was an attempt to reduce the consumption of sweets with the idea that going through the effort of actually baking cookies or cinnamon rolls or whatever will discourage mindless eating of junk foods. The added, albeit unintentional, bonus of this rule is that we don’t consume PHOs in our home because we do all our own baking.

Trans fats are used in food manufacturing because of their high stability which increases the shelf life of the product and by restaurants as a less expensive oil option. Hydrogenated fats are produced in a laboratory and are difficult for the body to metabolize; therefore, they circulate in the blood longer becoming oxidized, causing cellular damage and increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). The hydrogenation process takes a liquid vegetable oil, most often those containing omega-6 fatty acids, and adds hydrogen which changes the chemical bonds of the liquid oil turning it into a solid.

Another related public health concern is the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids in our blood. It is most likely due to the popularity of trans fats and their ubiquitousness, until relatively recently, in our food supply and the almost complete absence, again until recently, of grass-fed animal products in our food supply, that our blood lipid ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids are 10:1. Scientific research suggests that ratios of 4:1 and even 2:1 reduces the risk of CVD. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in salmon, sardines, walnuts, soybeans and flaxseed and are associated with decrease of inflammation. Trans fats are known to increase levels of inflammation as well as LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol”) while decreasing levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol. Higher levels of HDL are known to protect against risk of CVD and monounsaturated fat found in olives, nuts, seeds, avocados and peanuts increases HDL levels. Low levels of trans fats are found in dairy products and meat from ruminant animals (i.e. cows) perhaps supporting epidemiological study findings that diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains are associated with lower disease risk while the inverse is true for diets heavy in red meats.

cook the soup

Cook it yourself.

Eliminating trans fats is great step but the U.S. food supply is still far too high in refined starches, salt, sugar, and red meat and far too low in vegetables and whole grains. Americans rely far too heavily on purchasing our food whether it is from boxes on grocery store shelves or in paper bags from the drive-thru. The radical idea of actually preparing and cooking our own food would go a long way to improving the nation’s health as a whole. In a recent interview, Michael Pollan, celebrated food author of, among others, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, stated that cooking is “one of the most interesting things humans know how to do and have done for a very long time. And we get that, or we wouldn’t be watching so much cooking on TV. There is something fascinating about it. But it’s even more fascinating when you do it yourself.”

Food manufacturers have three years to devise a new way to add fat to their products and still maintain stability. As I stated in the news segment, I am curious to see what they come up with but you can bet that I still won’t be purchasing frosting that is able to sit on a grocery store shelf until next summer.

So bake a cake. From scratch. And make your own icing. It’s not that difficult and is much tastier than that boxed mix from Betty Crocker. But you had better eat it fast because it’s going to spoil quickly. And that’s not such a bad thing.

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  1. […] spread Country Crock on each slice – this was the early 80s when butter was still evil and trans fats were […]

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