In May 2003, trans fats had their 15 minutes of notoriety when Stephen Joseph, a San Francisco public interest lawyer, filed a lawsuit to ban the sale of Oreo cookies. The nutritional villains, argued the lawyer, that made the white cream so creamy and the black dough so crisp, were too dangerous to be ingested by children. Under the mounting pressure, Oreo maker Kraft finally agreed to take trans fats out of its cookies and stop all in-school marketing. In April 2004, Kraft announced the launch of trans fat-free Oreos.

Trans fats--or trans fatty acids--are created by industrial hydrogenation of vegetable oil. The process is used to make oil more solid, ensure longer shelf life of baked goods, keep frying oil usable for a longer time, and provide a certain kind of texture to food items. Studies found that partially hydrogenated vegetable oils not only raise "bad" LDL cholesterol levels but simultaneously lower the "good" HDL in the body, thereby increasing the risk of coronary heart disease.

The greatest problem is that trans fats are just about everywhere. A 1999 survey by the FDA confirmed that partially hydrogenated oil was in 95% of cookies, 100% of crackers, and 80% of frozen breakfast foods on supermarket shelves. (For more information on which foods contain trans fats and how to avoid them, check out

While the FDA says 1 gram of trans fat per day probably won't harm anyone, estimates show that the average American may consume as much as 20 grams of trans fat every day. A 1999 report of the Harvard School of Public Health stated that "By our most conservative estimate, replacement of partially hydrogenated fat in the U.S. diet with natural unhydrogenated vegetable oils would prevent approximately 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year, and epidemiologic evidence suggests this number is closer to 100,000 premature deaths annually."

The FDA recently announced that trans fats will have to be disclosed on food labels by January 2006... an edict that has caused the food industry to frantically search for a healthier replacement. But it's not that easy, food makers say, because the special qualities of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil make it hard to find a substitute.

According to a February article in the Washington Post, Dunkin' Donuts founder Bob Pitts "has tried 19 alternatives in the company's test kitchen near Boston, but the doughnuts were either too heavy or so slick the icing slid off. Most simply didn't taste good."

The nation's fast food giants face a similar challenge, as partially hydrogenated oils give French fries their special taste and crispness. The two major problems, they say, are the challenge to produce the same taste with a different oil, and the much higher price of the wholesome alternatives. Thus, many find it easier to stick their head in the sand and hope that the anti-trans fat movement may be a passing fad, like the low-fat or low-carb craze.

But this issue may not be so easy to duck. McDonald's just settled a lawsuit for $8.5 million, being accused of misleading the public. In 2002, the company had declared that it would get rid of partially hydrogenated oil by February 2003-- "two years later, it is still serving up six grams of trans fat in a large order of fries and has given no indication of when that will change," says the Washington Post.

Some food producers have already made progress, however: PepsiCo switched to non-trans fat corn oil in their Frito-Lay chips, and restaurant chains like Legal Seafood and Ruby Tuesday's now use canola oil to prepare their meals. And by the dreaded 2006 deadline, Kraft, ConAgra, Kellogg and Campbell Soup have vowed to be trans fat-free and clear.

So when you go grocery-shopping, make sure to read the food labels--look for partially hydrogenated oil, hydrogenated oil, or 'shortening'-- only buy high- quality cooking oils like extra-virgin olive oil in dark bottles (virtually every oil in a clear bottle is partially hydrogenated), and stay away from French fries and doughnuts... at least for a while.

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Posted 03-14-2005 5:20 PM by Doug Casey
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