Apr 262005
Authors: Lila Hickey

Come January, nutrition-conscious consumers will have one more thing to look at on labels at the grocery store: trans fats.

They appear in ingredient lists as hydrogenated oils and are increasingly being considered as a potentially dangerous substance. In fact, Jenifer Bowman, a registered dietitian at the Heart Center of the Rockies, said trans fats are just as unhealthy as saturated animal fats.

"Trans fats, in terms of heart health, would be the same as saturated animal fats," she said. "I view them exactly the same as chicken skin or the fat on meat."

Both saturated and trans fats can raise cholesterol levels and increase LDL or "bad" cholesterol, which then increases the risk of strokes and heart attacks, Bowman said.

Trans fats also lower "good," or HDL, cholesterol, said Pat Kendall, a food science and human nutrition specialist at CSU.

Trans fats are a common ingredient in many foods and were, at one time, thought to be a healthier alternative to butter and other oils.

"Without hydrogenated vegetable oils we wouldn't have margarine, we wouldn't have shortening," Kendall said.

Bowman agreed, and explained that hydrogenated oils are solidified.

"(Like) Crisco shortening – the whiter, hard solid stuff," Bowman said.

Margarine, in fact, which has fought a roller-coaster popularity battle with butter, is a trans fat – and may be suffering since various studies have suggested butter may be healthier than its artificial competitor.

"People are buying more butter now," said Safeway Customer Service Representative Marci Silver. "The healthier foods are getting sold more."

But Bowman and Kendall both say the new labels may not deter people from eating favorite foods.

"It kind of depends on how bad they're jonesin' for it," Bowman said of shoppers likelihood of eliminating certain high trans fat foods from their diets.

Kendall agreed and noted that preserving taste, one of the reasons trans fats are used in packaged food, might keep consumers coming back, despite the dangerous consequences of trans fats.

"Taste is very important for most people," Kendall said.

But Kendall expects the new labels to have an impact.

"I think it's going to be a good thing. I think it's going to be an eye-opener," she said.

Bowman is concerned that even health- and heart-conscious shoppers may have trouble interpreting food labels.

"You're not visualizing Crisco in your peanut butter, but that's what's going on there," Bowman said.

Many common brands of peanut butter, such as JIF and Skippy, contain trans fats, she said. Although these brands may be advertised as low or reduced fat, shoppers are better off buying natural peanut butter, with higher fat levels but fewer trans fats.

"These things are hard for consumers to understand," Bowman said.

But Kendall is optimistic.

"I think it will provide that extra info for the discerning consumer, who is the person who really needs it the most," she said.

And Silver thinks more consumers are becoming discerning.

"More and more people are reading the labels," she said.

Because of the stigma surrounding trans fats, many companies are trying to reduce the levels of hydrogenated oils in their foods.

"Nabisco – I think just about all of their products have trans fats listed," Bowman said. "There's a lot of food companies that were anticipating (the FDA's mandate). I think they're probably using it as a marketing edge."

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