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Expert Voices

Why Hidden Trans Fats Are Coming Off the Menu (Op-Ed)

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Christine Santori, R.D.N., C.D.N., is a program manager at the Center for Weight Management for the North Shore-LIJ Health System, which is based at Syosset Hospital. She contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

As a registered dietitian/nutritionist, I have counseled individuals for years to limit food choices that can negatively impact their health and well-being. This is not always easy, particularly when public policy and science don't match up.

But now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken the final step in closing the door on one especially harmful ingredient: trans fats. The FDA has determined that trans fats no longer fit the criteria of "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). Once the FDA removes trans fasts from that list, manufacturers that wish to use these fats must first file a petition and prove the ingredients' safety scientifically. Such proof of safety is unlikely given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Trans fats occur naturally in some animal products, but most trans fats in the U.S. food supply come from a process called hydrogenation. Food companies create trans fats by adding hydrogen to liquid fats, making them more solid at room temperature. Manufacturers like the ingredient because it is cheap, and some believe it adds to the texture and shelf life of certain products.

However, gram for gram, trans fat is the most dangerous type of fat. Scientific evidence has shown it to be worse for your health than other fats because it raises the LDL "bad" cholesterol and lowers HDL "good" cholesterol, thus increasing your risk of heart disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states, "A number of studies have observed an association between increased trans fatty acid intake and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. This increased risk is due, in part, to its LDL cholesterol-raising effect. Therefore, Americans should keep their intake of trans fatty acids as low as possible." The guidelines go even further to recommend individuals, "Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible, especially by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats."

The dangers of trans fats have been well publicized — so much so that when news broke of the FDA proposal, many people asked me, "Didn't they already do that?" New York City has gone further than most in protecting public health by banning restaurants from using the ingredient, but the answer for the country as a whole is: No!

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In 2006, the FDA took a big step in requiring food makers to list trans fats on food labels. This prompted many manufacturers to modify their ingredients or reduce the amount of trans fats their products contained, but an unfortunate loophole remains. If an item has less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving, it can be listed as having 0 grams of trans fat.

Many items still contain trans fats, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the food label. These foods include cookies, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, coffee creamer, vegetable shortening, margarine, prepared frosting and pie crust. When you consider that many people will consume more than one serving of these items, such foods can add a significant amount of trans fats to one's diet. This is concerning, since the Institute of Medicine has determined that there is no safe level for consumption of artificial trans fats.

For 60 days, the FDA will take comments on the trans fat proposal and then may take months to phase in the new requirements. In the meantime, protect yourself! Understand that you should limit even snack foods that manufacturers reformulate to not contain trans fats. Avoid cookies, pies and microwave popcorn, which represent empty calories. [ Fast Food: Meals Have More Calories Than You Think ]

Bottom line — if you do choose those items, read the ingredient list and avoid anything with "partially hydrogenated oils." This is code for trans fats. Choose foods that have the least amount of saturated fats, and use healthier options such as canola oil.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.