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Let’s hope trans fats go away and stay away

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

Every once in a while, the right thing happens. Here’s hoping that the latest development on artificial trans fats will turn out to be that right thing.

As news developments go, this one is big: The Food and Drug Administration announced last week that it wants to make trans fats go away.

Actually, what it wants to do is remove the designation “generally regarded as safe” – what the food industry refers to as “GRAS” – from foods that contain any amount of trans fats. That sounds wonky, but it’s really a “whoa.”

“This is one of the biggest changes in our food supply,” is how Rachel Berman, a registered dietitian who manages health content for About.com, described it.

An artificial trans fat is created when you bubble hydrogen gas through hydrogenated oil, turning liquid oil into a solid.

In the food industry, that creates a fat that is cheap and shelf-stable while mimicking the taste of butter. It also increases shelf life. That’s why your Ring Ding can sit in a package for years without getting stale enough to chip a tooth.

The problem is, that fake oil is so stable, your body can’t break it down. So it builds up in your arteries. It also raises the bad cholesterol, LDL, while lowering the good cholesterol, HDL, giving you a much higher risk of heart disease.

The risk is so high that several years ago, the FDA required that food nutrition labels had to include trans fats. But it left a loophole: Even though health experts agree that there is no safe amount, a food could have up to a half-gram per serving and still list “zero trans fats” on the nutrition label.

Now the FDA wants to make that loophole go away. After a 60-day comment period that opened Nov. 7, the FDA will make the final recommendation, including how long food makes will have to make the change. The bottom line: Trans fats are expected to largely go away.

Although some sources are raising alarms about things like frozen pizzas and doughnuts changing forever, it’s really not that difficult to replace them. Berman points out that Dunkin’ Donuts has already used a a blend of vegetable and soy oils to remove trans fats with little notice. Manufacturers have already cut their use a lot, and they’ll almost certainly come up with a substitute.

The irony to all of this is that trans fats were actually created to be good for you. Once upon a time, butter and lard were considered so bad that trans fats, particularly things like margarine and vegetable shortenings, were created to be the “good” fats.

Now we know that naturally occurring fats, even a little bit of the saturated ones, are better than the fake fat that was supposed to save us.

That’s why I’m a little cautious. The things we create inevitably turn out to have problems we never anticipated.

You want to make the best choice? Eat real food. You can even use a little butter – not a lot, mind you – along with unsaturated fats like olive oil, nuts and fish.

The best way to avoid trans fats is still the simplest: Cook real food.

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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