Trans Fat Holdouts Remain in Supermarkets, Despite Labeling
CSPI Urges Caution—and Action
WASHINGTON—Though trans fat-labeling rules spurred many companies to remove most of the partially hydrogenated oil from most of their processed foods, hundreds of foods still contain the discredited, heart-attack-inducing ingredient, according to a limited supermarket survey conducted by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). At least 150 varieties of pot pies, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, pastries, cookies and convenience foods have a whole day’s worth of trans fat, according to the group, which renewed its call for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to act on a proposal to phase out partially hydrogenated oil altogether.
Several Pepperidge Farm (part of the Campbell Soup company) products contain unsafe levels of trans fat, including a Chili and Cornbread with Beans One Dish Meal (4 grams of trans fat per serving), puff pastry sheets and shells (4 and 5 grams, respectively), and a Creamy Alfredo Chicken and Broccoli pot pie (11 grams) that has more trans fat than someone should consume in five days. Though Wal-Mart, America’s biggest supermarket chain, recently announced that its in-store delis would switch to trans-fat-free frying oil, several Wal-Mart Bakery products still have artificial trans fat, such as Glazed Mini Donuts (2.5 grams) and Apple Fritters and Honey Buns (6 grams each).
Other products that have alarming levels of trans fat include Drake’s Fruit Pies (8 g) and several Tastykake products, including Glazed Honey Buns (8 g), Glazed Donut Holes (5 g), and Mini Donuts (4 g). Partially hydrogenated oil is still used in many brands of microwave popcorn including some of Giant’s and Safeway’s house-brand versions and some varieties of Pop Secret (part of General Mills), Jolly Time, and Pop Weaver. Many stick margarines have 2.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
“Everyone is so used to seeing “0g Trans Fat” claims on food labels that it’s tempting to think the problem is solved,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “While labeling has been a great success, it clearly hasn’t been enough to get every company on board for every product.”
Though small amounts of trans fat occur naturally, most trans fat is artificially produced when vegetable oil is partially hydrogenated. Like saturated fats, trans fat promotes heart disease by elevating LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, in blood. But trans fats go further by lowering one’s HDL—the good cholesterol that actually helps prevent heart disease. For that reason, Walter Willet, a leading epidemiology and nutrition researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health calls trans fat a “metabolic poison.” The American Heart Association says Americans should consume no more than 2 grams of trans fat per day, which is about as much as someone would get from naturally occurring trans fat.
Since 2004, CSPI has been urging the FDA to prohibit the use of partially hydrogenated oils in food. Unfortunately, though, the agency that took ten long years just to include trans fat on food labels hasn’t taken action on CSPI’s petition. While the FDA rejected CSPI’s petition to require restaurants to disclose the presence of trans fat and still considers the ingredient “generally recognized as safe,” New York City; Philadelphia; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Brookline, Massachusetts have all passed similar measures that will require restaurants to phase out their use of partially hydrogenated oils, but those measures exempt packaged foods sold in their original wrappers.
Given the number of chain restaurant and food manufacturers that have gone trans-fat-free, it’s getting harder and harder for anyone else in the food industry to claim that they need to use partially hydrogenated oil to make a successful product, according to CSPI. For instance, numerous brands of microwave popcorn, cookies, and crackers are trans-fat-free.
Many tub margarines have zero grams per serving, including I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Promise, Benecol, and Smart Balance, so people should avoid stick margarines as much as possible. (It’s worth noting that the FDA lets companies claim zero grams per serving if a food has up to a half a gram of trans fat—an amount that could quickly add up to unhealthy amounts if someone has several servings of the food.) But even in those cases where a solid fat needs to be used—in stick margarine, pie crusts, croissants, pastries, and the like—exchanging a gram of trans fat for a gram of saturated fat is still a net plus.
“By requiring trans fat to be listed on food labels, the Food and Drug Administration helped ease the food industry’s transition to a trans-fat-free future,” said Jacobson. “But the FDA should finish the job and begin a regulatory process that would phase out partially hydrogenated oils altogether, or limit their use to minuscule amounts.”
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).