The media has a new “bad guy” called trans fats. So in the often overly simplified world of TV sound bites, journalists are now widely reporting on the new “good guys,” which are any foods (including Crisco) or any laws that have wiped out trans fats.
Sure, trans fats are nasty artery-clogging fats. And there’s good reason to rally for a 100% trans fat ban throughout the nation.
But there’s much more to the picture. Just removing the trans fat from a food does not necessarily make it a healthy food. Junk food is junk food no matter how you market and sell it.
Trans fats contain trans fatty acids, which are formed by a process called partial hydrogenation, used by the food industry to solidify and stabilize liquid vegetable oils. It’s how food processors turn oils into margarine, and if they hydrogenate them enough, eventually into Crisco shortening.
“While this process helps extend the shelf life of the oils and, in turn, the processed foods they’re often found in, it can significantly reduce the life expectancy of people who consume them frequently,” warns Dr. Jay Kenney, Nutrition Research Specialist at the Pritikin Longevity Center.
The main sources of trans fats are foods like store-bought cakes, cookies, crackers, pies and breads. They contribute approximately 40% of Americans’ trans fat consumption; margarine, about 17%; fried potatoes, potato chips, corn chips, and popcorn, about 13%; and household shortening, 4%.
Removing trans fats from margarine, frying oils, and pastries may be a slight improvement to the food, but it’s never a good idea to evaluate a product based on any one item. Remember ‘fat-free’ foods that were full of sugar and calories? And low-carb foods that were full of fat and salt? To be truly healthy, a food must pass several criteria, which many of these newly reformulated trans-fat free foods fail miserably at.
Many of these trans-fat-free media stars are in fact heavily processed foods flooded with refined flours, refined sugars, saturated fats, and cholesterol. And they’re often severely deficient in fiber and nutrients. Plus, they’re dense with calories. In other words, all of these foods are junk foods.
Butter, Palm Oil
Troublesome, too, are the ingredients that some food processors and restaurant chefs are replacing trans fats with, like butter and tropical oils such as palm, palm kernel, and coconut oils – all artery damaging. “In fact,” points out Dr. Kenney, “most tropical oils have even more saturated fat than butter or lard.” Often, too, the calorie content of the food hasn’t changed.
In short, you can still do harm to your arteries – as well as gain weight – by eating foods marketed as ‘trans fat free.’
The focus on trans fat, while needed, is also somewhat misguided. We need to focus on what causes the most harm. According to the FDA, the average daily intake of trans fat is 5.8 grams per day, or 2.6% of the calories we consume. Yes, we want to reduce and/or eliminate these trans fats. But we are far more concerned about the intake of another major artery clogger – saturated fats, which come mostly from animal products, dairy, and cheese.
Saturated fat accounts for about 12% of our total calorie intake – more than four times that of our trans fat consumption.
The Real SuperFoods
We also need to focus on foods that really are healthy. More fruits, more vegetables, more fiber-rich cereals and whole grains, more beans, and moderate amounts of seafood and nonfat dairy foods – this is the real ‘SuperFoods’ diet, and this is the Pritikin Eating Plan.