Michele Sponagle gets the lowdown on the realities of trans fat

Michele Sponagle gets the lowdown on the realities of trans fat

Hallelujah. Your favourite cookies are now “trans-fat free!” according to the package. Based on the surplus of these types of products now on grocery shelves, you may think that you’re on the road to Wellville. But here’s what you need to know about fat in your diet.

In the world of fats, there is the good, the bad and the ugly. Unsaturated fats (found in canola and olive oils and nuts, for example) are good for you, and an excessive amount of saturated fats is bad for you (that’s the kind in red meat, whole milk and butter). Trans fats, though, are the ugliest form. Large amounts can raise your level of bad cholesterol, LDL (think “L” for lousy), while also reducing your good cholesterol, HDL (remember “H” for healthy). Elevated LDL is linked to heart disease, the number 1 killer (along with stroke) of women in Canada, and trans fat dramatically increases your chances of getting the disease—by as much as 10 times.

There are two kinds of trans fats. The first you’ll find in small amounts naturally in foods from animal sources such as milk, cheese and meat. Because natural trans fat does not raise LDL cholesterol, there’s no need to fret about it. Where trans fat becomes a problem is in fried foods, commercially baked goods and processed foods. So everything from that order of onion rings you had at lunch to that package of cookies you bought at the vending machine may be harbouring synthetic trans fats. In those foods, trans fat comes from partially hydrogenated oils, created by heating liquid vegetable oil in the presence of hydrogen, which some manufacturers continue to use to extend a product’s shelf life.


Though Canadians get kudos for reducing total intake of fat over the past 20 years, we still have one of the world’s highest rates of trans-fat consumption. “It’s estimated that Canadians consume eight grams of trans fat a day,” says Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based registered dietitian and author of Foods that Fight Disease. That’s about 10 percent of our daily caloric intake, when it ideally should be no more than one percent.

It’s clear that an extreme makeover on our trans fat–rich diets is in order. “Read the label,” recommends Beck. “Since December 2005, nutrition labels have had to list the amount of trans fat in products. In restaurants, it’s more difficult to avoid. Stay away from deep-fried foods, or ask what kind of oil they’re using.”

A number of companies have reformulated their products by swapping partially hydrogenated oil for a healthier type of oil. And those “trans-fat free” products that line grocery shelves now? In order to have that label, they must contain less than 0.2 grams of trans fat per serving, and no more than two grams of trans fat and saturated fat combined. So, yes, they’re healthier than processed foods of the past, but that still doesn’t make them health food.

And although you may think you’re home free because your fave french-fry joint has switched to a trans fat–free oil (a plant-based one such as peanut or canola), consider that a regular order of fries still has almost 800 calories and 40 grams of fat. “There are a lot of companies jumping on the trans fat–free bandwagon,” says Beck. “It’s just a marketing tool to get people to buy products.” Indeed, some companies proudly making trans fat–free claims on their food labels never even had trans fat in the first place. No wonder we’re confused.

Thankfully, governments are slowly stepping in to clear some of the factual fog surrounding trans fat and are introducing legislation to limit its use. Last June, Health Canada gave the green light to recommendations made by the Canadian Trans Fat Task Force. The regulations, to be phased in by 2010, will see the allowable amount of trans fat in margarine, muffins, doughnuts and other goodies capped at two percent of the total fat content. For all other foods, trans fats will be restricted to five percent of total fat content. And when dining out, the West is best: on Jan. 1, Calgary became the first Canadian city to regulate the use of trans fats in restaurants. Watch for others to follow suit.


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