Finding the Fat in Foods

Health, Home & Family
on September 3, 2006

Even if you are an experienced shopper, the grocery store can be a confusing nutritional maze that requires looking beyond slick packaging and impulse buying to find the right healthy food choices for you and your family. Since 1990, the U.S. government-required food label has been a practical tool for deciphering what’s actually inside those boxes of cereal, tubs of butter and jars of peanut butter stacked along grocery aisles. And for those watching their cholesterol, take note that as of Jan. 1, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring food manufacturers to add trans fat to the Nutrition Facts that already list, among other things, calories, sodium, dietary fiber and nutrients in a single serving size.

All fats are not the same, and knowing which ones are unhealthy is the first step in lowering your risk of heart disease. Fat is a major source of energy for the body, aids in the absorption of certain vitamins and helps us feel full. However, consumption of saturated fat, trans fat and dietary cholesterol raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol levels that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. With the revised label, consumers now can compare and choose foods with lower amounts of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol.

What is trans fat? According to the National Cholesterol Education Program, trans fat forms when vegetable oil is hardened into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine through a process called hydrogenation. This process helps make foods more solid, gives them shape, and prolongs their shelf life.

It also hardens your arteries!

Trans fat often can be found in processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, some margarines (especially harder margarines), crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods and baked goods.

Saturated fat still is the primary dietary culprit in raising a person’s bad cholesterol levels, though. Saturated fat most often is found in animal food products, including fatty cuts of meat, chicken skin and full-fat dairy products such as butter, whole milk, cheese and in tropical vegetable oils such as palm and coconut oils. On average, Americans consume four to five times as much saturated fat as trans fat in their diet.

The FDA recommends replacing saturated and trans fats with mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which do not raise LDL cholesterol levels and have health benefits when eaten in moderation. These fats, found primarily in oils from plants, include canola, olive and peanut oils, avocados, sesame and sunflower seeds, corn and soybeans.

The food label can serve as a helpful road map in navigating which fats are good and which are bad. When reading a label, keep portion size in mind. “Look at the grams of fats and especially the food ingredients and choose the product with the lowest amount of saturated and trans fat,” says Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science at Tufts University.

To make sense of the Percent Daily Value (%DV) listed on the labels for saturated fat and cholesterol, remember that 5 percent or less is considered low, and 20 percent or more is high. (The FDA hasn’t established a Percent Daily Value for trans fat.) Percent Daily Value shows what portion the product provides toward the amount of daily recommended nutrients.

If you’re hesitant to start reading the fine print, Lichtenstein recommends a quick grocery shopping experiment to break the ice. “Pick three or four boxes of crackers,” she says. “Line up the crackers and compare each label. Select the one with the lowest amount of trans fats.” Lichtestein says reading the labels to reduce and cut out bad fat can “by default” become a healthy habit.