7 Surprising Foods That Sneak in Trans Fats
Some common grocery store foods contain much higher levels of heart-hazardous trans fats than you think. Here’s how to spot it on the label.
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We've heard the health message: Avoid trans fat
However, a study published in 2013 in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease revealed that while some US products and food manufacturers have made progress in reducing trans fats, substantial variation exists by food type. Even though packaged foods may list “0 grams trans fat” on their Nutrition Facts label, many still have partially hydrogenated oil (the main dietary source of trans fat) in the ingredient list. Current laws allow companies to “round down,” so if a food has fewer than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving they can round down to zero. While it may sound like a tiny amount, if you eat more than one serving, or if it's a food you eat regularly, it can have a major negative impact on your health. “We eat a lot of packaged foods,” says Dawn Napoli, RD, a registered dietitian with UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health in Orlando, FL. “Over time that can make a huge difference.”
The good news? The amount of trans fat we eat has dropped in the past 30 years, according to a study published in 2014 in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Men are consuming 32 percent less trans fat, and women 35 percent less, than they were in 1980. Still, 1.9 percent of men's daily calories and 1.7 percent of women's daily calories come from trans fat today; the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fats to no more than 1 percent of total calories consumed. Even small amounts of trans fats can harm health: for every 2 percent of calories from trans fat consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23 percent, according to research published by Harvard Health Publishing. Read on for seven foods that are packing trans fat—even if the food label makes it hard to tell. And watch out for these subtle signs that you're eating too much bad fat.
Nondairy Coffee Creamer
Half a gram of trans fat in creamer can quickly multiply, as consumers tend to use more than the standard serving size of a teaspoon per cup and the typical American coffee drinker guzzles an average of three cups of joe per day. The giveaway: On many “0 trans fat” labels, partially hydrogenated oils is the second or third ingredient listed. Many people are giving up on coffee creamer, in favor of these surprising add-ins.
Some companies use partially hydrogenated oils to peanut butter to achieve a longer shelf life and a creamy texture, so check the label. To be safe, opt for the natural variety; although chunkier, it’s also healthier and normally made with just salt and peanuts—not oils loaded with trans fat. These are other foods that are surprisingly unhealthy.
It may be your Friday night movie staple, but microwaveable popcorn is full of trans fats. The culprits are the flavorings: Butter flavoring can include 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, while caramel flavoring can contain as many as 1.5 grams. Some extra-buttery varieties can have up to 15 grams of trans fat per bag—which is all too easy to inhale in one sitting. “Stay away from the microwave popcorn,” says Napoli. “Just do the old-fashioned air pop or use an actual oil to pop the kernels in.” Here's how to make your own homemade microwave popcorn.
Trans fat is lurking in the dough of many frozen pizzas, with about 0.3 grams in just one slice. One solution? Make your own pie at home. “Then you know what’s in the dough and you can look at the cheese ingredients and other toppings,” says Napoli. “If you’re ordering out, ask what type of fat they're using. If they say margarine or shortening, you are likely getting trans fat.” Check out these healthy pizza crusts you can make at home.
Packaged cookies often contain trans fats, so be sure to check the ingredient lists before buying. And, as with pizza, you can ask bakeries whether they use margarine or shortening, Napoli says.
Margarine consumption boomed during the butter shortages of World War II, with even Eleanor Roosevelt promoting it as her toast topping of choice. But it’s a recipe for trans fat overload (and increased risk for death and coronary heart disease, found a study published in 2015 in the British Medical Journal). To create that creamy spread, liquid vegetable oils are blasted with hydrogen. The more solid the margarine, the more it’s been hydrogenated. Many labels claim to have “0 grams” of trans fat, but if the label lists partially hydrogenated oils, those small amounts of trans fat can add up when you slather margarine on your food. “I always recommend butter versus margarine,” says Napoli. “But if you’re going to use margarine, try to use the more liquid ones. Pumps, sprays, or tubs are better than the stick." This is the real difference between butter and margarine.
Chains like Burger King, Popeyes, and McDonald’s offer trans-fat–free biscuits (though they're still high in saturated fat). The grocery store brands, however, can contain 3 to 5 grams of trans fat per biscuit. It’s the combination of these foods with others—think a biscuit topped with margarine—that make for an especially dangerous trans fat overdose.
Breakfast bars and granola
Grabbing a granola bar as you rush out the door in the morning might be convenient but it's also adding a lot of trans fat to your daily diet. A lot of bars are advertised as containing zero trans fats, but a quick skim of the nutrition label proves that to be wrong. If you can't give up your daily dose of granola, read the nutrition label before you buy it. If you want to guarantee that yours is healthy, here's how you can make granola from scratch.
Not all soft-flour tortillas contain trans fat, but a lot do. Be sure to read the nutrition label. Many brands add partially hydrogenated oils for longer shelf life.
Snack mixes and crackers
You probably already knew that crackers aren't the healthiest food choice, however, you likely don't realize just how many trans fats get packed into these products. Most contain partially hydrogenated oils, added colors and flavors, and sugars. Rule of thumb: The more artificial the flavor, the worse it is for you.
- Preventing Chronic Disease: "Trends in Trans Fatty Acids Reformulations of US Supermarket and Brand-Name Foods From 2007 Through 2011."
- Dawn Napoli, RD, registered dietitian, UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health, Orlando, FL.
- Journal of the American Heart Association: "Trends in Fatty Acid Intake of Adults in the Minneapolis-St Paul, MN Metropolitan Area, 1980–1982 Through 2007–2009."
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Truth About Fats: The Good, The Bad, and The In-Between."
- Mayo Clinic: "Trans Fat is Double Trouble for Your Heart Health."
- Cleveland Clinic: "Avoid These 10 Foods Full of Trans Fats."
- British Medical Journal: "Trans Fats, but Not Saturated Fats, Linked to Greater Risk of Death and Heart Disease."
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Shining the Spotlight on Trans Fats."
- Food and Drug Administration: "Trans Fat."