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The Basics Of Trans Fats

Recently, officials in New York City proposed banning the use of trans fats in restaurants. Trans fats, which have been linked to heart disease, are also found in many products you buy at the supermarket. On The Saturday Early Show, Dr. Mallika Marshall explained what you can do to avoid these artery cloggers.

What are trans fats, and why are they so bad for us?

It's a type of fat that is found in many foods you buy at the grocery store. It occurs in small quantities in some meat and dairy products, but it is actually added to many products you find in the grocery store. There's some evidence that trans fats can raise your LDL (bad cholesterol levels) and may decrease HDL (good cholesterol levels) and that could increase your risk of heart disease.

Each year, about 18,000 people in New York State die from heart disease, but Dr. Marshall says it's not clear if there is as direct link between their disease and the trans fats they eat from foods served in restaurants. "Having high cholesterol can certainly increase your risk of heart disease," she adds, "and not only can trans fats increase your cholesterol, saturated fats like butter and cream do as well. So trans fats are not the only culprit in restaurants."

It's a good idea of limit your intake of trans fats, but it's not the only thing to avoid when you are dining out. Butter, animal fat, and salt can be unhealthy as well.

Does Dr. Marshall think that other cities will follow suit? She says Chicago is considering a similar proposal. "But New York has been something of a leader when it comes to banning things that are bad for you," she explains. "In 1960, the Big Apple was the first city to ban the use of lead paint, which can cause many serious problems in children. And about three years ago, New York banned smoking in restaurants, something other cities have now done. So there is a chance that you will see this spreading."

But, on the other hand, Dr. Marshall says some opponents of the trans fat ban say it's too intrusive and that unlike smoking, eating trans fats isn't hurting anyone else. But others disagree. They say we'll all end up paying higher health-care costs if more people get sick.

Why are trans fats still found in the products we buy, even though we have known for years how unhealthy they are?

Trans fats increase the shelf life of many of the baked goods you buy at the grocery store. And food companies say they have had a hard time coming up with alternative. That's not to say that there aren't any alternatives; you just have to seek them out.

What food that we buy at the supermarket are most likely to contain trans fats?

Not all of these foods contain trans fats but, in general, you need to be on the lookout for margarines, baked goods like cookies or brownies, frozen food, and chips and crackers.

Is it required that food labels divulge trans-fat content>

It used to be that if you wanted to avoid trans fats, you would have to carefully examine the products you buy and look for words like "partially hydrogenated oil." But the federal government has now made it easier for you to stay away from trans fats. As of Jan. 1, 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made it mandatory that all foods list the amount of trans fats prominently on the label.

Some products that are free of trans fats:

  • Smart Balance Margarine
  • Nestle Toll House Dough
  • Tombstone Original Pizza
  • Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers.