Trans-fat Free: Healthy or Not?

Just because foods have less fat, sugar, or calories doesn’t make them healthy foods.

Remember when carbs were the bad guys? The food manufacturers do, I’m sure. A few years back, when everyone was doing the Atkins thing, we were deluged with everything from the impossible-sounding low-carb bread to carb-counter’s chocolate fudge. Trouble was, everyone was too focused on the details. In keeping close tabs on their carbs, they lost track of calories. And many of them gained weight.

The latest nutritional example of not seeing the forest for the trees has to do with trans fats. As concerns have emerged about the negative health consequences of consuming these primarily man-made fats, food manufacturers have been falling all over themselves to eliminate trans fats from their products.

But on the heels of all this culinary re-engineering came concerns that food manufacturers were simply replacing trans fats in their cakes and cookies with equally bad-for-you saturated fats.

Not to worry, says a recent report. After reviewing 58 reformulated foods from the supermarket and 25 fast-food restaurant offerings, it was found that the new-and-improved foods had significantly less trans fats. On top of that, 65% of the supermarket foods and 90% of the restaurant foods had saturated fat levels that were lower, unchanged or only slightly higher than before. That sounds like good news.

But here’s the catch. The foods in the survey included margarine, French fries, fish sticks, cookies, donuts, cakes, fried chicken, burgers and burritos—not exactly a catalogue of health foods. Reducing the trans fats in fried chicken is like spiking root beer with vitamins. Just because it’s “better”, doesn’t make it good for you.

Sure, reducing trans fats in foods is good idea. But you’d also eat a lot fewer trans fats if you just ate less margarine, French fries, fish sticks, cookies, donuts, cakes, fried chicken, burgers and burritos.

You can bet you won’t get any trans fats if you swap in a fresh peach for dessert instead of a cream-filled vanilla cupcake. Here’s what else you won’t get: bleached white flour, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, artificial flavors, a laundry list of preservatives, two teaspoons of grease and five teaspoons of sugar.

We need to look at foods as a whole, not as a source (or not) of individual ingredients that we’re trying to eat more of (or avoid). Whole natural foods are complex mixtures of all sorts of good things – designed and packaged as mother nature intended.