You’re Probably Eating Trans Fat Without Knowing It

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If I am going to be making a terrible decision about my health, I’d at least like to be aware that I’m making it (hi, Buffalo Crunch doughnut). But according to a new study from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the nutrition labels on quite a few processed foods are pretty misleading. Specifically, the authors say, “0 grams” of trans fat often does not mean the food is trans-fat-free.

A quick trans-fat primer, if you need it: It’s naturally found in some animal products and is not quite so bad in these instances, but most of the trans fat Americans consume comes from partially hydrogenated oils — generally speaking, where there are partially hydrogenated oils, there is also trans fat.

And that’s a problem since, last fall, the Food and Drug Administration tentatively determined PHOs to be “not generally recognized as safe for any use in food.” (If that decision is finalized, partially hydrogenated oils will not be allowed in foods sold in the U.S.) Nutritionists discourage consuming even small amounts of trans fat, as it has been linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes; the American Heart Association recommends cutting it out of your diet as much as possible.  

It seems to be hiding out in a lot of our food, though. The authors of the study checked the ingredients lists on 4,340 popular packaged foods — things like cookies, crackers, frozen entrées, breakfast cereals, etc. — and found that almost 1 in 10 of these products contained partially hydrogenated oils. And of those products that contained the hydrogenated oils, most — 84 percent — listed “0 grams” of trans fat per serving. (And, again, if a product contains PHOs, it will also contain at least some trans fat, said Christine Johnson Curtis, assistant commissioner for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who co-authored the study.)  “This labeling is cause for concern,” the authors write, “because consumers, seeing the 0 g trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label, are probably unaware that they are consuming trans fat.”

Curtis declined to call out specific brands but said the foods most likely to contain PHOs were cookies and crackers. So, now, go forth making informed poor nutritional decisions.