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.

cistrans.gif

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.

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