Monthly Archives: July 2008

CA finally bans trans fat. So…what IS trans fat again?!

Following legislation passed in New York City a year ago, California became the first state to ban artificial trans fat from foods served in restaurants. Assembly Bill 97 will ban all but half a gram of trans fat per serving in restaurant food by 1/1/2010 and in commercial bakeries by 1/1/2011.

I’ve read a lot of commentary and a lot of comments on-line, and many, many people seem agitated by the idea of legislating what we eat. I’m wondering, however, if many of them know what they’ve been eating, and that’s really the point of this law.

Artificial trans fat raises LDL levels in the blood — that’s the “bad” carrier of cholesterol, the plaque builder, while also lowering HDL — the “good” carrier of cholesterol that helps us rid ourselves of cholesterol and avoid plaque buildup that leads to inevitable heart disease. There’s really no debate about this, and there’s really not one redeemable quality about the stuff except that it extends the shelf life of foods and solidifies fat. And neither one of those things will extend your shelf life. Naturally occurring trans fat — the kind found in butter and meat fats — do not behave the same way and are not included in the ban.

Trans fat is essentially good fat with a twist. Manufacturers take a monounsaturated fat — the type that’s good to consume, and hydrogenate it (literally, adding hydrogen) — breaking the double bonds holding it together and changing its shape. Normally those “H”s, hydrogens, hang out on the same side: that’s a cis fat – the normal state of things. But then they flip and are diagonal from one another — the result of hydrogenation — they’re trans. That’s a chemistry term. And that little chemical change makes all the difference in the world.


On food labels, when you see hydrogenated, or partially hydrogenated, that’s a signal that there’s trans fat lurking in there. If there’s less than one-half gram of the stuff per serving, manufacturers can say there’s none in there on the food label. And none is the preferred amount — you want it as low as you can because there isn’t much that’s good about it, like I said.

So why not take it out of the stuff you eat out of the house? It’s difficult to tell when you’re getting it, and most people I’ve met are too afraid to ask how their food is prepared (they don’t want to seem like big fusspots).

For restaurants, it’s a matter of changing from hydrogenated cooking oil and shortening to unhydrogenated, and that’s nothing but good for you.

And where might you find this stuff in food? Cookies, snack foods (check the labels on those especially), the more solid margarines (check the label, go for the softer stuff because hydrogenation is used to solidify, and the softer it is, the less trans fat!), french fries, pie or anything with shortening (trans-fat-free shortening is now available, however), and icings.

Hungry for more? The FDA has a comprehensive page with all kinds of good information on trans fat right here.


My daughter and I were having some (hot, black) tea with milk to fend off the fatigue of the heat and now I feel like writing about it (and so I will!).

Most of the naturally occurring caffeine in tea leaves steeps into the water during the first 30 (give or take) seconds. So to make my daughter’s decaf brew, I steep the bag in my cup for about a minute and then steep hers. All the good stuff, none of the hyper. Teas marketed as decaf undergo one of two methods (ethyl acetate or CO2 for you tech nuts), it’s just as easy (and a bit tastier, actually) to do it my way. It’s always easier to do it my way, as my entire family will tell you.

Green tea and black tea (read: Lipton and such) come from the same plant (Camellia sinensis). All that differs is how they’re processed.

Tea leaves that are picked and immediately dried, or steamed and then dried, are green tea.  Because the leaves are undisturbed during the steaming/drying process, they retain many beneficial phytochemicals (phyto=plant), including those that contribute to green tea’s much-heralded antioxidant properties.

Tea leaves that are picked and then cut, bruised by beating or running them over (!) and then aged for a time before steaming and drying are black teas.  The process is called “fermenting,” though the tea is not fermented in the true sense.  In the true sense, the tea is oxidized, which depletes the naturally occurring antioxidants that protect the plant.  This is why black teas do not contain as many antioxidants as green tea.

Though they do contain some.  And that’s bully for me, because I really like mine with soy milk — a lactose-intolerant nod to my British heritage.  Americans usually think milk in tea is vile (a fact lost on me during my apparently insular, otherwise American childhood).  But here’s a tip, fellow Americans: British people will look at you as though you’ve ordered a fresh cup of vomit if you order iced tea.  Up to you.

So what about other teas?  Oolong is tea that’s partially oxidized.  White tea has a lot of antioxidants because it is brewed from very young tea leaves (but still from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis).  Ceylon and Darjeeling teas refer to a tea derived from one place, all the same type, while English Breakfast is usually from a mixture of tea leaves that may not be grown in the same place to create a unique blend of flavors.  Again, all the same type of plant.

Herbal teas are not from the Camellia sinensis plant.  They do not contain caffeine, but some, like Rooibos (red) tea, contain an abundance of antioxidants.  Herbal teas are usually referred to as infusions or tisanes. 

What of these antioxidants?  It’s very likely they’re there to protect the plant from oxidation produced by all that sunbathing they do.  We need antioxidants because our bodies have a love/hate relationship with oxygen, as well as a hate-hate relationship with all that pollution, cigarette smoke, overeating, etc.  We make some antioxidants in our bodies, but often we need more.  And that’s another story for another time, to quote my spouse.

Pyramid Tracker

When it comes to keeping track of what we eat, most of us look around like a cat with a canary stuffed in our gob (though for most of us it’s 3 scoops of Double Rainbow stuffed into a giant waffle cone — after all, it’s hot out there!). But if you’re looking to improve your diet, you need to have a peek (with no one else looking, even!) at what you’re doing day by day. (Please note: if you click on any of these pictures they will enlarge so you can see what’s what!)

I like the Pyramid Tracker (, then click Pyramid Tracker) for this task because it’s relatively simple, you can record your dietary analysis for up to a year, and it will analyze your diet in several ways, and because it can all be done rather quickly. My students infinitely prefer the Pyramid Tracker to analyzing their diet by hand using food labels and other sources. It’s more accurate by hand, but you’re much less likely to actually do it.


Once you’ve entered your bio information on the front, hit the button that says Save Today’s Changes and go to the Physical Activity section. Choose the condensed version and enter any physical activities in which you’ve engaged because this will affect how much food you require. Then enter the type and duration of activity, and you can save and analyze whether or not you’re getting enough activity.


Then on the top menu go to Update Profile and hit the Save Today’s Changes button. Then on to your diet. Choose the foods from the search engine by entering keywords, then select the serving size if you know it, and how many servings you had. Then hit Save and Analyze and you can choose any or all of the anlayses to see how you did. (To look up a previous day’s analysis later all you have to do is enter the original date.)

tracker3.jpgCan’t find that Starbucks Frappuccino? I know. You can safely place that under Discretionary Calories (430 for the vanilla blended!), but you’ll have to look it up. Here’s a link for Starbucks coffee drink and food nutrition information. And to be fair, how about one for Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf?

You’ll also need to be aware that foods like cream cheese, count as discretionary calories, and that will not show up in the analysis. Nor will it tell you that part of 2% milk, due to its fat content, counts as discretionary calories. So before you get all excited and pop a King Size Hershey bar in your mouth, check out what counts, or use the Menu Planner feature, which has the advantage of telling you what “counts.” If you’re not that interested in nitpicking every last thing, have a look at the nutrient analysis to make sure you aren’t consuming too many calories. Then you can decide how much room you have for “treats.”

The analysis compares your diet to MyPyramid, which will indicate the level of balance in your diet, by showing a nutrient analysis (which is an estimate because you’re using a database, but still, it’s a good estimate), or by showing how you meet the Dietary Guidelines. I’d suggest having a look at all of them. The nutrient analysis will alert you to your caloric, fat, sodium, vitamin and mineral intakes.