The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recently announced that they will likely remove artificial trans fats from the list of foods “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). This decision comes after years of scientific evidence that trans fats cause an increased risk of heart disease, something concerning for adults and children alike.
Trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy foods. Artificial trans fats come from partially hydrogenated oil (PHO), commonly used in packaged and processed foods. Hydrogenation (adding hydrogen to liquid oil) changes the composition to create a fat that’s solid at room-temperature. Foods feel less greasy when the oil used is hydrogenated.
Avoid Foods Loaded with Trans Fat
Using PHOs also increases shelf-life of foods, which is especially advantageous for packaged food manufacturers. Many foods popular with children are unfortunately loaded with trans fat:
- microwave popcorn
- frozen pizza
- snack cakes
- french fries
- ramen noodles
- toaster pastries
- potato chips
Although PHOs were initially thought to be healthier than the saturated fats they were replacing (think margarine vs. butter), substantial research has shown that trans fats increase LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and decrease HDL (“good” cholesterol), thereby increasing the risk of heart disease. One study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that banning artificial trans fats would prevent up to 20,000 cases of heart disease and 7,000 deaths each year.
Limit Trans Fat to < 1% of Total Daily Calories
Currently, the FDA requires companies to list trans fat separately on the Nutrition Facts food label for packaged foods, but allows any food containing less than 0.5 grams trans fat per serving to be called “trans fat free.” The American Heart Association recommends limiting intake of trans fat to less than 1% of total daily calories.
That means if your child needs 1,500 calories per day, no more than 15 of those calories should come from trans fat. That’s less than 2 grams of trans fat per day. So, if your child eats two servings of a food with 0.4 grams trans fat, that’s almost halfway to their daily limit from a food that claims to be “trans fat free.” New FDA guidelines would close this loophole and help consumers make more informed decisions about food.
Until this decision goes into effect, which could take several years, parents can avoid artificial trans fats by reading the ingredient list on food packages. If “partially hydrogenated oil” appears in the list, that food contains trans fats. Offer healthier snacks to kids such as:
- air-popped popcorn
- natural peanut butter (oil separation means no trans fat)
- whole-grain crackers without PHOs
- low-fat yogurt
- a small handful of almonds
Eating fewer packaged and fried foods is a very good way to minimize trans fat in your home and reduce your family’s risk of heart disease.