Hiding Fat

By Spencer, Peter | Consumers' Research Magazine, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Hiding Fat


Spencer, Peter, Consumers' Research Magazine


The fat you may need to worry about most in food isn't listed on the ingredient label.

Mounting research suggests that so-called trans fats, which are primarily unsaturated fats formed in the processing of vegetable oils (through hydrogenation) to make margarines, shortening, and some cooking oils, pack more of a wallop when it comes to cholesterol-raising effects than the long-time villain--saturated fat. But these fats are not listed on the food label, and there's some controversy about how they should be listed, if at all.

The latest piece of evidence against trans fats comes from a study published in a June New England Journal of Medicine. In the study, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers conducted a trial comparing the effects of six diets with a broad range of trans fatty acid levels on the lipoprotein cholesterol levels in the blood. Among other measures, the researchers looked at the change in low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called "bad" cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), known as the "good" cholesterol. The larger the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol, the higher the risk of heart disease.

The study found that diets in which fats primarily came from soft margarine, shortening, and stick margarine--which provided a bit less than half the saturated fat and half the cholesterol, but two-and-one-half to more than five times the trans fatty acids in the diets than butter--raised LDL cholesterol significantly more than soybean oil-based and semiliquid margarine-based diets, which are low in trans fats.

Moreover, although a butter-based diet produced slightly higher levels of LDL in the blood, the net effect from the trans fat-heavy diets, particularly those based on stick margarine, was the same or larger. The researchers found that such trans fat-heavy diets actually lowered HDL cholesterol levels, as opposed to the saturated fat-heavy butter, which tends to raise HDL. So, although the trans fat-heavy diets "have advantages over butter with respect to LDL cholesterol levels" they result in "similar or less favorable ratios of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol, and they are therefore less preferable," the researchers concluded.

In an accompanying editorial, prominent diet experts with the Harvard School of Public Health and the Wageningen Center for Food Sciences in the Netherlands reported that these and results of other recent studies suggest that "on a per-gram basis, the adverse effect of trans fatty acids appear to be stronger than that of saturated fatty acids. …

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