It gets confusing at times, that is for sure, but the good news is that we don't have to not eat any fat to be healthy.
In fact, it is more the type of fat than the amount of fat that matters these days. Typically we have tried to cut back on the dreaded saturated fat. And we still should watch how much saturated fat we consume. Seven percent or less of our diet should be saturated fat. This equals about 15g saturated fat per day for someone eating a 2,000 calorie diet. Saturated fat is typically found in animal sources (meat and dairy) and is solid at room temperature (fat back, butter).
Trans fat, however, is the new villain in town. Trans fat is harmful to heart health in two ways. It both lowers the HDL (good cholesterol) and raises the LDL (bad cholesterol). In fact, the American Heart Association states that we should get 1 percent or LESS of our total calories from trans fat. For someone eating 2,000 calories, that means 2g/day.
I am about to explain to you just how easy it is to over shoot that mark even when you eat foods containing “0g" trans fat. No really -- it is possible using the math of nutrition labeling laws to have 0 + 0 + 0 + 0 equal 2 or almost 2. For example: If you had 3 tablespoons of coffee creamer in your morning coffee + a muffin from a boxed mix, then had a brownie (from a mix) with lunch, you could have eaten about 2.5g trans fat and not known it.
How can this be, you ask? Well, the labeling law says that if a food has less than 0.5g trans fat, it does not have to be listed on the nutrition facts panel. To identify foods with “0” on the facts panel that do contain trans fat, you must go to the ingredient list and look for the words “partially-hydrogenated” oil. If a food product contains that, then there is some trans fat in that product. Of course, we don’t know exactly how much but up to 0.49g. Less than half a gram is not much but when the recommended intake level is so low, even a small amount can quickly add up to be more than recommended.
Many prepared cakes, pies, cookies and baking mixes contain trans fat. As I scanned the grocery store shelves, I was looking for foods with small amounts of trans fat and used the ingredient list as my guide. I found many products like cake mix and brownie mix that contained partially-hydrogenated oil.
My next move was to look for similar products that did not have partially-hydrogenated oil in them. And guess what! I did find some, but it was not easy. For example: Kroger brand cake mix does not have trans fat, and neither does Ghirardelli brownie mix. In many (but not ALL) cases, the products made without the trans fat had higher levels of saturated fat.
So this might lead to the next logical question: Which is better? I think it is likely best to err on the side of saturated fats versus trans fat. However, that is not the main point of my paragraph. The point, or “bottom line” as I like to say, is that all of these foods are foods that should be eaten in moderation! It is the fruits and vegetables we should eat the most of and there is no worry about trans fat, saturated fat or reading ingredient labels. Eating healthy can be simple even when it seems complicated.
Here is a starter list of foods listing “0” trans fat on the nutrition facts panel that do contain partially-hydrogenated oil and therefore some trans fat. Initially my goal was to bring you an exhaustive list. Well, I got exhausted before the list was exhaustive (sorry). The point being there are many foods with “0” trans fat that may have up to 0.49g trans fat in one serving. Check the ingredient list for the words partially-hydrogenated fatty acid and then try to find an alternative product.
If there is not a suitable substitute, then remember portion control. Another point to make note of is that are no fruits and vegetables on the list below, which serves as a reminder of why it is so important to consume adequate fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are healthy AND they displace other UN-healthy food we might be tempted to eat!
Foods With Trans Fat
Comparable Foods Without Trans Fat
Transitioning from the villain of the fat world, I’d like to end on a positive note and talk just briefly about healthy oils for the home kitchen.
People often ask me “What is the best oil to have on hand at home?” My answer is typically the same.
Extra virgin olive oil because it is a monounsaturated fat (helps to decrease LDL cholesterol without decreasing HDL). Extra virgin olive oil also has many antioxidants in it, which add to the health properties of olive oil.
Canola oil is the second oil I recommend for the home kitchen. It has a higher smoke point (which means it can be used for higher heat cooking) than olive oil and it is less expensive than olive oil. I use it for baking in place of some of the butter in baked goods. Canola oil also has ALA (Alpha-lenolenic acid) which is the plant version of omega-3 fatty acid. These contribute to heart health as well.
Additional oils to consider are walnut oil, for a unique flavor, and sesame oil, for wonderfully-flavored stir fry recipes.
Until next time: eat well, live well!