Coming soon: trans fat values on food labels

Eating well - November 2005


Virginia Van Vynckt

If you read food labels, you’ve noticed that many now include the amount of trans fat under the listing for saturated fat. That’s because a Food and Drug Administration rule requires that food labels include trans fats by Jan. 1, 2006.

Studies have shown that, like saturated fat, trans fat raises levels of the LDL, or "bad," cholesterol that can cause heart disease. Some researchers consider trans fat even more artery-clogging than saturated fat. While heart disease may not top the list of what you worry about as a parent, the stage for heart disease is set young. Plus, the eating habits children learn tend to stick with them as they grow to adulthood.

Trans fat (or trans fatty acids) is formed when hydrogen is bubbled through liquid oils to turn them partially into solid fats. A small amount of trans fat is found naturally in meats and dairy foods. Hydrogenation allows oils to be used as a substitute for solid fats such as butter or lard and extends their shelf life.

Foods most likely to contain trans fats include vegetable shortening, stick margarine and processed foods that fall into the crunchy-flaky or creamy category: crackers, cookies, cake and brownie mixes, snack foods, creamy dessert fillings, frozen waffles, pies, flavored coffee drinks, nondairy creamers and toppings and some candies. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils can show up in places you might not expect, such as energy bars and the frozen green tea whip at your local deli or restaurant. Fries at most of the fast-food chains are cooked in partially hydrogenated oil.

Some foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil won’t have trans fat listed on the label. That’s because they contain less than a half gram of trans fatty acids per serving, an amount the FDA considers insignificant. Note: That is per serving. Two tablespoons of a whipped topping might contain .4 gram of trans fat, but if you heap a cupful of the stuff on your pumpkin pie, the amount of trans fat is no longer insignificant.

The government has not yet established a daily value for trans fat, but many researchers recommend that trans fat and saturated fat combined make up no more than 10 percent of your daily calories. (One gram of fat has 9 calories.)

A kid-favorite food that’s exempt from trans fat labeling is peanut butter. Most commercial peanut butters contain a small amount of hydrogenated oil, which keeps the oil from separating. But the amounts of trans fat in peanut butter are negligible, assuming your kid doesn’t eat the stuff night and day. To avoid even that small amount, you can buy natural peanut butters that contain no hydrogenated oils. They need to be stirred to incorporate the oil into the peanut butter.

Some food processors have eliminated or reduced the amount of trans fat in their products. Even Crisco shortening now comes in a zero-trans-fat variety, made with a patented blend of sunflower, soy and cottonseed oils.

Speaking of shortening, it’s nearly time for Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie, normally served with a shortening-rich, flaky crust. You can make an oil-based crust, make a flaky crust with no-trans-fat shortening, make less crust or no crust at all.

Sans crust, pumpkin custard is pretty healthy for a dessert. It’s rich in fiber and beta carotene and supplies some vitamin E and iron.

Virginia Van Vynckt, mother of two, has written extensively about food and nutrition, and is the author of Feed Your Kids Right the Lazy Way.


4 large eggs

1 (29-ounce) can pumpkin

1¼ cups packed brown sugar (light or dark, your choice)

½ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1½ teaspoons ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground allspice

2 (12-ounce) cans evaporated skim milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a casserole or souffle dish large enough to hold about 8 cups of liquid with room to spare.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until fluffy. Beat in the pumpkin, brown sugar, salt, vanilla and spices, and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the milk.

Pour into the dish. Bake in the middle of the oven for 1 to 1¼ hours, or until a knife inserted near the center of the pudding comes out clean.

Set on a wire rack to cool for 30 minutes, then refrigerate until serving time.

Serve plain or with light whipped cream.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.


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