Tag Archives: Nutrition Facts

When it comes to trans fats, zero is too much!

Nutrition recommendations are often confusing and contradictory. To make things worse, the nutrition information provided on food packages can be difficult to decipher or downright misleading. In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week I share information about trans fats and how zero doesn’t always mean none.

trans-fat-label


Remember when fat was bad and carbohydrates were good? The idea was that eating fat led to weight gain, a problem that could be solved by eating less fat. Then carbohydrates, including bread and pasta, were blamed for obesity and other health problems which led to the low-carb diet craze.

The truth is that all fats and all carbohydrates aren’t necessarily good or bad. Fats come in different forms, some of which have positive health effects and others that are linked to poor health and disease. Similarly, carbohydrates also come in different forms, some you should eat more of and some you should limit. This is why you hear people talk about good carbs and bad carbs or good fats and bad fats. In reality, no nutrients are really “bad” as long as you consume them in reasonable amounts balanced by exercise and other activity.

Nutrition recommendations for good health call for a moderate fat intake (20–35% total calories) with an emphasis on monounsaturated and omega-3 fats, while limiting saturated and trans fats. Olive oil, canola oil, and avocados are good sources of monounsaturated fats. Fish, including salmon and tuna, are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Saturated fats are found primarily in animal products, especially red meat and butter, as well as tropical oils like palm and coconut oil.

Most trans fats come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are polyunsaturated fats that have been modified for use in frying and in baking (margarine is a partially hydrogenated vegetable oil). While there is much debate about the health effects of the different types of fats, almost everyone agrees that trans fats should be avoided.

The Nutrition Facts panel on food packages also contains information that is supposed to help you make choices that are lower in total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Unfortunately, this is not as straightforward as it seems. By law, manufacturers can list trans fat at 0 grams as long as it contains less than 0.5 grams. This means that a food can contain up to 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving even though it is listed as 0 grams!

This may not seem like much, but consider that the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat intake to 2 grams per day, at most. You could easily exceed this limit with just a few servings of “trans-fat free” foods. When it comes to trans fats, zero can be too much. It’s no wonder so many people struggle to make healthy food choices!

How can you tell if zero isn’t really zero? One way is to look for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” in the ingredient list, which indicates that trans fats are present.

Nutrition information is confusing, to say the least. Even if you know to look at the Nutrition Facts panel on food packages, the information there is not always easy to understand. In some cases, what you see on the label does not reflect what you are really eating.

One step toward making healthy choices is to eat “real,” unprocessed food as much as possible. Fats that occur naturally in food are less of a concern than modified fats that are added in food processing. So, don’t worry so much about fat in meat and dairy and use natural oils, like olive oil. You will likely find that these “real” foods are not just better for you, but better tasting, too!


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
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When it comes to making good food choices, knowledge is power.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about making smart food choices and how the nutrition information we are provided with can complicate that process.


Making smart decisions about what you eat is an important step in losing weight, feeling better, and preventing and treating a host of health conditions. But doing so requires that you have the knowledge to make those healthy decisions. Unfortunately, most people don’t have a good education in nutrition, forcing them to rely on information provided to them.

Some of this information comes from reputable sources and is based on research and experience. More often, though, nutrition information is provided by food manufacturers whose interests may not be consistent with providing smart recommendations. The end result is that consumers (that’s us) may not understand the information they get or know how to use it to make healthy choices.

A good example is the health claims about whole grains found on many food packages, including breakfast cereals. “A good source of whole grains,” is a common claim. Most people would reasonably interpret as a sign that the food inside is healthy, or at least is healthier than similar foods that don’t contain whole grains.

These types of claims are allowed by the FDA, but they refer only to what is in the food, not whether it is healthy or not. Many of the foods bearing this claim probably are healthy choices, but this isn’t always the case.

For example, Lucky Charms cereal contains whole grains. In fact, whole grains are the first ingredient, as the claim on the box indicates. Sounds good, right? But, when you read the Nutrition Facts panel on the side of the box you will find that the second ingredient is marshmallows! Does that sound like a healthy breakfast? (Hint: It’s not!)

Lucky_Charms package

 

This is the problem. If you are like most people, you won’t take the time to read the ingredients or the nutrition information on the back of the package. And even if you do, you may find that information to be confusing. Even if you wanted to make healthy choices, you might not have the knowledge to interpret and apply the available nutrition information.

This general lack of knowledge we have about nutrition has led to situations in which some foods are restricted or banned. Recently, the city of Berkeley, California voted to impose a tax on soda and other sugary drinks in an effort to keep people from consuming too much sugar and too many calories.

This effort, and others like it, have contributed to a vigorous debate about personal choice and freedom for people to make their own decisions about what to eat and drink. One argument against these types of restrictions is that if people have the nutrition information about soda (or any other food) they can make informed choices.

This is a nice idea, but it simply isn’t fair to expect people to make good decisions if the information isn’t available or is not easy to understand. Worse, misleading information can lead to making bad decisions.

Help may be on the way. The FDA is working on a redesigned Nutrition Facts panel that should help us make better food choices. In particular, the amount of sugar added to foods will be listed. This change alone will help identify foods that may appear to be healthy, like Lucky Charms which contain whole grains, but are actually high in added sugar. Additional changes include more realistic serving sizes and better information about fat content.

It is unclear when the updated nutrition facts panel will be implemented. In the meantime, do your best to read labels and use common sense as your guide: The addition of marshmallows does not make any food any healthier, no matter how much whole grain it contains!