Although trans fats must be listed on packaged foods, restaurants aren't bound by the same labeling requirements.
In the space of two weeks, partially hydrogenated oils with trans fats were dumped by the Wendy's hamburger chain, named in a lawsuit against the KFC fried chicken chain, and assigned to the nutritional doghouse by the American Heart Association.
It wasn't long ago that most Americans were oblivious to the widespread presence in their diets of trans fats. Cookies, chips, crackers, French fries -- if the food was processed with oil, chances were good it contained trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils.
In recent years, health professionals have sounded alarms about trans fats, noting they offer no nutritional benefits and raise cholesterol levels, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease. On Jan. 1, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring most packaged foods to disclose the amount of trans fats on nutrition labels. This summer, the war on trans fats has continued to sizzle.
"There's clearly a lot of momentum to get trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils out of the food supply," said Jeff Cronin, communications director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington D.C., nutrition watchdog group.
On June 8, Wendy's announced it was switching to non-hydrogenated cooking oil for its French fries and breaded chicken items. It marked the first time a big fast food chain said goodbye to an oil revered for its versatile cooking properties, Cronin said.
Six days later, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued KFC, seeking to stop the chain from using partially hydrogenated oil in its foods. And last week, the American Heart Association issued new diet and lifestyle recommendations that for the first time specify a strict limit on trans fat intake.
Jeanne Marie Cooper, a mother of two from south Sacramento who emphasizes healthy eating in her home, welcomed the latest trans fat news.
"It's fantastic," said Cooper, who owns a natural skin care company called NutriChiral. "Everyone should be vigilant about these things. It's your health you're looking out for, and your family's."
Double whammy for heart health
Trans fats occur naturally in some foods, such as meat and milk. But about 80 percent of those consumed come from partially hydrogenated oils, which are chemically-altered oils that have been turned into solid fats. They have been popular in the food processing industry because they have a long shelf life and are easily manipulated to improve flavors and create textures such as creaminess or crispiness.
While handy for cooking, trans fats are bad for the body. Like saturated fats (those from meats and dairy products, as well as palm and coconut oils), trans fats increase LDL, the bad cholesterol, which contributes to heart disease.
In addition, new research shows, trans fats may lead to inflammation inside arteries, creating complications for people with heart disease, diabetes and other diseases, said Liz Applegate, director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis.
"I would call it a double whammy for heart health," Applegate said. Cholesterol is a concern for all ages, she noted, adding that autopsies have found LDL deposits in the arteries of children.
People instead should consume unsaturated fats, which are usually liquid oils from plants. Monounsaturates, which help reduce LDL cholesterol and are considered good for the heart, include olive, canola and peanut oil. Those high in polyunsaturates, such as safflower, soybean, corn and sesame oils, also are considered fairly healthful.
The American Heart Association's new guidelines for diet and lifestyle say people should limit intake of saturated fats to less than seven percent of total calories consumed, and trans fats should make up no more than one percent. Fats have nine calories per gram, so for someone on a 2,000-calorie daily diet, that would mean no more than 15 grams of saturated fats and no more than two grams of trans fats in a day.
It's easy to get one or two grams of naturally occurring trans fats from a serving of meat or dairy, which doesn't leave much room for foods containing partially hydrogenated oils, Cronin said.
The FDA's Jan. 1 call for trans fat labeling on packaged foods is helping consumers more easily avoid foods with trans fats. Many companies have dropped partially hydrogenated oils from their recipes as a result. But people should be wary of a loophole. If a serving has less than half a gram of trans fats, it can be listed as zero on the package.
But people often consume multiple servings of an item. So, for example, if a serving of a margarine spread or microwave popcorn or cookies had, say, 0.4 grams of trans fats, and someone ate several servings, he or she could exceed the recommended upper limit even though the package said zero trans fats.
As a result, people should also read the ingredients on packages. If partially hydrogenated oil is listed, it's a good indicator the food may contain trans fats. Applegate cautioned, though, that some companies are able to "fractionate," or separate out the trans fats from hydrogenated oils.
Restaurants aren't bound by the same labeling requirements, leaving diners more vulnerable to trans fat consumption, said Stephen Joseph, a San Francisco attorney who heads a nonprofit called Bantransfats.com.
In 2003, Joseph's group sued Kraft Foods over trans fats in Oreo cookies, and a year later sued McDonald's over its failure to inform consumers it had not cut trans fats in French fries as the company had promised. Oreos no longer contain trans fats. But a medium order of McDonald's French fries has five grams of trans fats, according to the company. A KFC meal of three chicken strips, a biscuit, mashed potatoes and gravy has nine grams, KFC's Web site shows.
On June 13, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued KFC in the District of Columbia Superior Court to stop the chain from frying food in oils with trans fats. The company's response was to invoke Colonel Sanders and vow to fight the suit.
"We've tested oils that are trans-fat free, but we haven't found a recipe yet that's as delicious as our world-famous Original Recipe," KFC said in a statement.
Beyond trans fats
Alice Lichtenstein is a professor of nutrition at Tufts University's Friedman School in Boston. She chairs the American Heart Association's nutrition committee, which wrote the new diet and lifestyle guidelines.
She said focusing on trans fats won't guarantee better health. Americans need to make numerous changes to improve their overall health. That includes decreasing saturated and trans fats; eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains; reducing portions; and cutting down on salt.
Also critical, and for many, even harder than giving up French fries: Exercise on a regular basis.