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Has the Ban on Trans Fats Made Foods Healthier?

It may seem obvious that banning trans fats would make foods healthier, but initially, I did not think it would be so.
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While it may seem obvious that banning trans fats would make foods healthier, I did not think it would be so. I feared that food manufacturers would simply switch to another type of fat that was just as unhealthy as the trans fats. In fact, I have warned many a patient, "If it looks unhealthy, chances are it is unhealthy regardless of what the packaging claims." And while I still stand by that advice, it seems as if some (but not all!) food manufacturers have found a healthier type of fat.

All fats are not equal; different types of fat affect your body differently. Some fats (saturated fats and trans fats, specifically) increase your "bad" cholesterol and increase your risk for heart disease. Other fats (monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats) actually lower cholesterol and decrease the likelihood of heart disease.

Trans fats are the worst types of fats. These fats increase LDL ("bad" cholesterol), increase total cholesterol and lower HDL ("good" cholesterol), causing a particularly increased risk of heart attack and stroke. They are not found in nature, but rather are artificially made in laboratories. Liquid oils are put through a chemical process to make them solid at room temperature. Trans fats greatly increase the shelf life of a product and are extremely inexpensive to produce. They are found in shortening, margarine, and most commercially prepared baked goods. Most fried foods are deep fried in trans fats.

A group from Harvard looked at 83 foods that had been reformulated since 2006, when the government required food labels to list the amount of trans fat in packaged products. At that time, food producers scrambled to find a cheap replacement. The mission was to find a fat that was inexpensive yet still tasted good and had a pleasing texture.

Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, from Harvard, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest looked at the current fat content of both packaged foods and restaurant offerings. Researchers used information from the FDA databases, nutrition labels, and industry brochures. According to a letter published in a recent New England Journal of Medicine, nearly all of the foods were free or mostly free of trans fat and many companies did not increase their saturated fat content when they cut out the trans fats. 65 percent of supermarket products and 90 percent of restaurant fare contained saturated fat levels that were lower, unchanged or only slightly higher than before.

According to the study, a large order of McDonald's French fries had a favorable makeover. Trans fat dropped from 7 1/4 grams to zero; saturated fat went from five and one-half grams to three and one-half grams. Gorton's Crunchy Golden Fish Sticks also did well. Trans fat went from three grams per serving to zero; saturated fat unchanged at four grams. Entenmann's Rich Frosted Donut, however, is an example of a company removing trans fat without increasing the healthiness of the food. While trans fat dropped from five grams to zero, saturated fat more than doubled from five to 13 grams.

Entenmann's Rich Frosted Donut is just one example. "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.

So it seems as if my advice still holds. Do not eat something without knowing what is in it. Make sure you check nutrition labels and limit your intake of trans fat and saturated fat. And, finally, remember my sage advice: If it looks unhealthy, it probably is unhealthy. Pick something else!