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The great trans wreck.

"Cooked in 100% vegetable oil," boast boxes of Burger King french fries. "Low saturated fat," claim Oreo labels.

A victory for health-conscious consumers trying to avoid the cholesterol-raising saturated fats in beef tallow, lard, butter, and palm and coconut oils? Not quite.

Last August, we analyzed 19 foods made with vegetable fat. True, some had less saturated fat than they did in the 1980s, when companies cooked more of their foods in animal fats and tropical oils.

But along with the lower levels of saturated fat, we found higher levels of trans fatty acids---unsaturated fats that also raise cholesterol, possibly as much as saturated fats do. Among our findings:

* Half the fat in Burger King's fries was saturated when they used to be fried in beef tallow. Now 58 percent of their fat is cholesterol-raising--that is, either saturated or trans.

* Just one Dunkin' Donuts plain doughnut has as much cholesterol-raising fat as a Big Mac.

* A Taco Bell Taco Salad in its fried, trans-laden shell has a day-and-a-half's worth of cholesterol-raising fat.


To understand how so much trans fat got into our food, we've got to turn back the clock several years.

In 1984, CSPI launched its "Saturated Fat Attack," a campaign to get fast-food restaurants and food companies to stop cooking with saturated animal fats and tropical oils.

Adding to the pressure, Nebraska millionaire Phil Sokolof's National Heartsavers Foundation ran a series of full-page newspaper ads accusing not only fast-food chains, but the makers of Oreos, Crisco, and other brand-name foods of "poisoning" America.

By 1990, most companies had caved in. McDonald's and other chains announced that they would use vegetable oil rather than beef tallow to fry their french fries, and most food manufacturers had abandoned tropical oils.

But despite the claims on many packages, most companies switched not to vegetable oil, but to vegetable shortening. And that created a problem.

Shortening has more cholesterol-raising fat, because it's made by partially hydrogenating--that is, partially saturating--liquid oils, a process that also creates trans fat (see illustration). Of course, the makers of margarine and shortenings like Crisco had been feeding us high-trans fat for decades. And until recently, most people thought it was safe.


It wasn't until 1990 that a Dutch study found that trans fat raises cholesterol. (1) But it fed people 33 grams of trans a day--about three to six times what the average American eats.

In response, the industry's Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to do a more-realistic study. In 1992, USDA researcher Joseph Judd reported the results: A diet averaging only 10 or 20 grams of trans fat a day raised cholesterol levels as much as---or slightly less than--a diet high in saturated fat. (The study wasn't large enough to say which.)

"Until we know more, we can assume that each gram of trans raised LDL ["bad"] cholesterol about as much as a gram of saturated fat," says Judd.

Since then, the FDA has issued new labeling rules designed to help consumers identify healthy foods. Yet the new food labels--which will list saturated fats--give consumers no way to find out how much trans fat most foods contain.

"The USDA study wasn't available when we formulated our new regulations," says an FDA official who asked to remain anonymous. Why not do it now? "We're exhausted from rule-writing," the official admitted.

The FDA did have enough sense to protect consumers in two other ways when the new rules go into effect next May:

* When a food voluntarily lists the amount of unsaturated fat (poly or mono) on its label, it can't include the trans fat, even though trans fat is unsaturated.

* When a label claims that a product is "saturated-fat-free," the food must contain less than half a gram of trans fat. Consumers "expect such products to be 'free' of components that significantly raise cholesterol," said the FDA.

That's some protection, but not enough.


While the FDA mulls over the trans problem and the food industry largely ignores it, you've still got to eat. That's why we sent 19 foods to an independent testing laboratory for analysis. Here's what we found:

* Fast Foods. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) all claim that they cook their fries and other foods in "vegetable oil." In our tests, none of them did.

"When the fat is in the fryer, it's a liquid, so we call it an oil," says Burger King spokesperson Chet England. Hm-m-m. Guess that makes butter, Crisco, and margarine oils, too.

According to our analyses of foods purchased in the Washington, D.C., area one day last July, about a third of the fat used by Hardee's and KFC was saturated or trans, while more than half of the other chains' fat was.

Of course, we only analyzed foods from one of each chain's restaurants. (That's because every chain's headquarters assured us that all of their restaurants used the same frying fat.)

But for some chains, we later discovered that the frying fat varies from place to place. The KFC fat we tested, for example, was a liquid. Yet about half of the KFC restaurants we later called said they use a solid--that means a more-saturated--shortening.

So exactly what goes into the frying vats at your KFC is still murky. But other findings seem clear. Fries cooked in McDonald's, Burger King's and Wendy's shortenings aren't that much healthier than fries cooked in beef tallow. And that means they're decidedly unhealthy.

Thanks to Burger King's shortening, for example, a Whopper and a large order of fries has more cholesterol-raising fat than you should eat all day. There's more in the fries than the burger.

And fries aren't the only problem. Most restaurants probably use the same fat to fry their chicken and fish. judging by the oil in its Taco Salad shell, Taco Bell has made some progress since the 1980s. But only because it used to fry everything in coconut oil, which is by far the most-saturated fat. Taco Bell's new shortening makes it "only" as bad as beef tallow.

Dunkin Donuts is no better. A serving of two plain doughnuts has as much cholesterol-raising fat as most people should eat in a day. At least the company's brochure acknowledges that it fries in vegetable shortening, not oil.

And even those liquid shortenings used by Hardee's and some KFC restaurants are two to four times higher in saturated and trans fats than the liquid oils you buy in the store. They're not solid shortening, but they're not the "vegetable oil" the packages claim they are, either. They're partially hydrogenated oils...and that means they still raise cholesterol.

* Margarines and Spreads. In the "what to put on your toast," department, butter is still the worst option, with margarine-butter blends not much better. Yet it's margarine labels that are the most deceptive:

"70 percent less saturated fat than butter," gloats the label of Parkay stick margarine. True, but the additional three grams of trans fat hidden in each tablespoon mean that it doesn't cause 70 percent less damage to your arteries than butter.

The fact is, because only saturated--and not trans-- fat is listed, margarine labels typically reveal only half the cholesterol-raising fat they contain.

Nutritionally speaking, your best bet is a very-low-fat spread like Promise Ultra Fat Free or Nucoa Smart Beat. Unfortunately, your tastebuds may disagree. If so, Country Crock, Weight Watchers Extra Light Spread, or other "light" spreads--that is, watered-down margarines--may do the trick. And if you're stuck on a butter flavor, stick with Land O' Lakes Country Morning Blend "light" tub.

* Cookies. "Low saturated fat" say Oreos packages. True, each serving-- that's three cookies--has only one gram of saturated fat. But it's also got two more grams of trans fat.

Pepperidge Farm's Mint Milanos are worse, with two grams each of saturated and trans fat. At least the label doesn't imply that they're good for your heart.

(1) New England Journal of Medicine 323: 439, 1990.

Margo Wootan is a nutritional biochemist at CSPI. Associate Nutritionist David Schardt helped research this article.

1 large onion, chopped
1 tbs. olive oil
1 green pepper, diced
1/2 cup chopped celery
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups defatted chicken
1 large tomato, chopped
2 bay leaves
 1/2 tsp. dried rosemary
 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
 1/2 tsp. dried basil
4 cups corn kernels
1 cup shredded Swiss chard
1/2 cup canned black-eyed
 peas, drained and rinsed
3/4 tsp. paprika
1/4 tsp. red pepper
1/4 tsp. black pepper

In a 4-quart pot over medium heat, saute the onions in the oil until light brown, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the green peppers, celery, and garlic. Cook for 5 minutes.

Add the stock, tomatoes, bay leaves, rosemary, oregano, and basil. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Add the corn, Swiss chard, black-eyed peas, paprika, and red and black pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes. Discard the bay leaves. Serves 4.

Calories: 245 Sodium: 420 mg
Protein: 6 grams Fat: 3 grams
Carb: 42 grams (11% of calories)

2 tbs. paprika
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup orange juice
3 tbs. lime juice
2 tbs. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. olive oil
1 pound boneless, skinless
 chicken breasts

In a baking dish, combine the paprika, oregano, cumin, and garlic. Whisk in the orange juice, lime juice, vinegar, and oil. Place the chicken breasts between sheets of waxed paper or plastic and pound to an even thickness (about 1/3 to 1/2 inch) with a mallet.

Add the chicken to the dish and turn to coat well. Arrange in a single layer. Bake at 400 degrees, basting occasionally, for 20 minutes, or until cooked through. Serves 4.
Calories: 187 Sodium: 65 mg
Protein: 28 grams Fat: 5grams
Carb: 6 grams (24% of calories)

We used low-sodium stock and tomato juice.

1/2 medium cabbage, chopped
2 large onions, chopped
1 tsp. dill seeds
1/2 tsp. caraway seeds
1 tbs. olive oil

4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbs. vinegar
3 cups defatted stock
1 1/2 cups tomato juice
1 large potato, diced
2 tsp. low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley

In a 3-quart saucepan, saute the cabbage, onions, dill, and caraway in the oil, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is translucent and wilted, about 10 minutes.

Add the garlic and vinegar. Cook for 1 minute. Add the stock, tomato juice, potatoes, and soy sauce. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the parsley. Serves 4.
Calories: 153 Sodium: 314 mg
Protein: 4 grams Fat: 5 grams
Carb: 24 grams (29% of calories)

2 cups canned black-eyed
 peas, drained and rinsed
2 cups shredded carrots
1 cup shredded kale
1 cup minced leeks
2 tbs. lemon juice
2 tbs. red wine vinegar
1 tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. dried basil
 1/2 tsp. dried sage
 1/4 tsp. dry mustard

In a large bowl, combine the peas, carrots, kale, and leeks. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients. Pour over the peas and toss to combine. Serves 4.
Calories: 228 Sodium: 227 mg
Protein: 9grams Fat: 5grams
Carb: 38 grams (20% of calories)

The Bottom Line

Here's how to avoid trans fat:

1. Eat less fat. Avoid deep-fried foods. Choose lower-fat margarines, chips, crackers, cookies, pastries, and other processed foods. The less fat, the less trans.

2. Use canola or, better yet, olive oil instead of butter, margarine, or shortening, whenever possible.

3. If you use margarine, choose "light" or "diet" rather than full-fat, and tub rather than stick.

4. Look for foods that are labeled "saturated-fat-free." They're also low in trans fat.

5. If a label voluntarily lists both mono- and polyunsaturated fats, you can estimate the amount of trans fat in the food by subtracting the saturated, mono-, and polyunsaturated fats from the total fat.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related articles; high levels of trans fatty acids in foods
Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Letting the chips fall.
Next Article:The salt shakeout.

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