- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Through the years, the heart has taken a beating. Between dating heartbreak and our long series of bad relationships with a long series of fats, the heart, it seems, has been under constant attack.

Of late, the designated culprit has been trans fat. This past year alone, there has been a dramatic push for banishing trans fat from our diets. On Dec. 5, the New York City Board of Health voted to require that all city restaurants remove anything in excess of a minute amount of artificial trans fats from foods during the next 18 months. Los Angeles and Chicago are also considering regulation.

Nationally, since January 2006, the food industry has been required to list trans fat right under saturated fat on food labels. You can imagine the scrambling that’s been going on to find an alternative. Like it or not, trans fat is about to become the “Where’s Waldo?” of the food world.

Trans fat in modern food processing dates to the 1980s, when we booted saturated fats from our diets because of heart-unhealthy properties. Enter trans fat, stage right.

Artificial trans fat is made by a chemical process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is nothing more than adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to turn a liquid into a solid. It’s a cheap replacement for animal fats, such as butter.

Trans fat also has a longer shelf life than animal fats and is pretty flavor stable, as well, making it popular with cookie, cracker, baked goods and fried food manufacturers. One of its virtues, from a food-service point of view, is that french fries can be fried over and over and the oil won’t burn because it does not contain saturated fats. With all that going for it, we should have known trans fat was too good to be true.

Scientific evidence now shows us that consumption of trans fat (and saturated fat) raises LDL blood cholesterol, the bad cholesterol that is directly linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease. What makes trans fat worse than saturated fat is that it also decreases the HDL (or good) cholesterol in the blood.

I’m not against fat of any kind. In moderation, fat is a necessary macronutrient, required for the growth and development of the human body and for overall health. The body needs fat to be able to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. Both animal- and plant-derived foods contain fat.

One of the big problems with artificial trans fat is that it found its way into so many foods so quickly that there wasn’t time to complete long-term studies on how it affects the body. Until recently, food labels were not required to list trans fat, and companies boasted that their products were saturated-fat-free. The public, not seeing the term “saturated fats” on the labels, assumed they were eating healthily, and being good consumers, of course, doubled the portions.

Trans fats difficult to avoid completely are found naturally in small quantities in meat and dairy products. Nonetheless, the American Heart Association recommends our diets contain no more than 1 percent of trans fat per day, which translates into 2 to 2.5 grams per day of our total fat intake.

This can be a bit confusing to the average person. When looking at a food label, you should know that trans fat is rounded down to the nearest .5 and only required on labels if the product contains .5 grams and above per serving. This may seem insignificant, but those numbers add up quickly when consumers have 2 to 3 servings of cookies. And you know and I know that sticking to recommended serving sizes is not always our nutritional strong suit.

If you want to make sure the food you eat does not contain trans fat, even if it just misses the .5 threshold, check the food label for the word “hydrogenation” in the ingredient list. If you see that word, you know that trans fat is lurking.

So what’s on the horizon, now that trans fat is no longer our friend? Americans don’t like it when our Double Stuf Oreos are tampered with or our McDonald’s french fries take on a new taste.

So what are food manufacturers to do? There are existing fats, such as palm oil, coconut oil, canola oil and corn oil. But palm and coconut oils are saturated. And shelf life could also be a problem.

One option is to embrace another oil. But as we learned through our passionate affair with trans fat, that can be risky. Taking a fresh look at saturated fats is also on the table. It’s possible that they’re not all as bad as we once thought they were — specifically the saturated vegetable oils, since they come from a plant and not an animal. But the jury is still out.

The solution may lie in blending oils to give us exactly what we want: texture, taste and shelf life. That’s the direction a lot of food chemistry research is taking. In my opinion, it might not be a bad idea to return to baked goods made with real butter or vegetable oil, and let’s teach people to eat smaller quantities and less frequently.

This does not solve the problem of shelf life, but I, for one, would rather eat food that’s fresher and better tasting, even if I have to buy it or make it more often.

We could make the packaging smaller, so it could be enjoyed while it lasted. This might cost a little more than baked goods made with trans fats, but that, in itself, could be a way to get people to eat less.

Maybe if we didn’t consume so much of everything, 12.5 million Americans would not have heart disease and 500,000 of them would not die each year, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

In the meantime, we might also find time to cook a little more and to prepare our own baked goods, snacks and fried foods, using healthier fats.

This may seem a bit time-consuming for our fast-paced world, but we would be doing better for our bodies. Isn’t that the goal? While we wait patiently for the next fat trend to emerge, let’s give our hearts a break. Watch portion sizes, whether food is home-cooked or not, and try to choose wisely.

Low-fat potato chips

2 large baking potatoes, thoroughly scrubbed

Nonstick cooking spray

About 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Thinly slice potatoes on a mandoline or in a food processor. They should be no more than 1/8-inch thick. Blot potato slices dry.

Lightly mist the back of a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Arrange potato slices on top of sprayed surface in a single layer and lightly brush them with olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bake chips in preheated 350-degree oven until golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer chips to a cake rack to cool. Makes about 80 chips; serves 4.

115 calories per serving, 2 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 22 grams carbohydrates, 0 cholesterol

Betsy Klein is a registered dietitian and nutritional consultant in Miami. For answers to questions, visit www.betsykleinrd.com.

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