No License to Overindulge
What replaces those trans fats may be almost as bad for you
Entire cities and counties have banned them. McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken have vowed to give them upas have Starbucks, Ruby Tuesday, and a host of other former sources of sinful pleasures. In response to the 2006 Food and Drug Administration requirement that trans fats be listed on nutrition labels, makers of packaged goods from potato chips to Oreos have brought their totals down to zero. Last month, Frito-Lay even got the FDA's blessing to put a claim on products loaded with healthy, unsaturated fats that replacing bad fats with good ones may protect against heart disease.
Does this mean that junk food is now the new health food? "No!" says Robert Eckel, immediate past president of the American Heart Association, whose "Face the Fats" education campaign points out that a "zero trans fats" label doesn't tell the whole story. "People know trans fats are not good for them," says Eckel. "But they do not understand that replacing them with saturated fat is not a good option."
And that, in some cases, is what's happening. Yes, the food industry is experimenting with ways to keep the saturated fat content lowby using unsaturated options such as canola and sunflower oils, for example. But some manufacturers, loath to sacrifice taste and texture, are reverting to less-than-healthful choices such as palm oil and butter.
Rich flavor. Baked goods have proved particularly vexing to change. The solid fats that provide their light texture and flakiness as well as the rich flavor typically are either highly saturated or are "partially hydrogenated" oils that contain trans fats. (The hydrogenation process makes liquid oils more solid by adding hydrogen to their chemical structure.) Entenmann's frosted chocolate doughnuts, for example, are free of trans fats. But thanks to saturated palm oil and palm kernel oil, just one doughnut contains 16 grams of saturated fator about 80 percent of the recommended daily intake for someone taking in 2,000 calories a day. Dunkin' Donuts, Krispy Kreme, and Sara Lee haven't yet figured out how to make the switch.
Makers of fried foods have had an easier task, since certain liquid unsaturated oils can do as tasty a job. In May, McDonald's announced that it will switch to a mixture of canola, soybean, and corn oil within a year, while KFC has already switched to an unhydrogenated soybean oil. (The unsaturated fats in unhydrogenated oils help lower a person's level of "bad" LDL cholesterol and raise "good" HDL cholesterol.)
Snack makers, too, have found the switch to be relatively manageable. Frito-Lay, for one, began making Cheetos, Tostitos, and Doritos with corn oil several years ago; on products whose fat content is at least 80 percent unsaturated fats, the company now can claim that "replacing saturated fat with similar amounts of unsaturated fats may reduce the risk of heart disease." So far, the company says it has no plans to use the health claim.
Manufacturers are raising nutrition experts' eyebrows with other tricks, too. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard whose research showed that trans fats promote heart disease, says that some companies now are fully, rather than partially, hydrogenating vegetable oil. Full hydrogenation doesn't create trans fats as it solidifies the oil, but it does produce stearic acid, a saturated fat. Willett cautions that stearic acid, a substance often found in soaps and candles, seems in preliminary research to promote inflammation, which contributes to heart disease. "I'm not in favor of using totally hydrogenated oil" until more is known, he says.
Frito-Lay may be shrewd to play up fat's benefits. A recent study by the International Food Information Council Foundation shows that about 42 percent of Americansa 9 percent increase over last yearare trying to cut back on certain healthy fats along with trans fats. "All people hear is that fat is bad, bad, bad," says Susan Borra, president of the foundation. In fact, most people need more of the good kind.
This story appears in the June 18, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.