BITING into an Oreo is a different kind of exercise than tucking into a robust tofu stew or getting one's jaws around a crunchy spinach salad -- more pure indulgence than something you do with the body's daily requirement for selenium or roughage in mind.
But today the sinful treat is a tad less sinful. Spurred by government-mandated changes to food labels that went into effect Jan. 1, Oreo's maker, Kraft, has dropped an unhealthful fat -- trans fat -- from the cookie's ingredient list.
The Oreo, with its soft white center epitomizing trans-fat creaminess, was once a public target of anti-trans campaigners. But similar, subtle changes have been made in foods all over the grocery store -- in pies, spreads, cookies, chips, puddings and frozen entrees, all with reworked formulations allowing their labels to proudly declare they contain zero trans fats per serving.
Medical experts welcome the new inclusion of trans-fat content on food labels and the removal of this heart-unfriendly fat from many of our foods. But the transition is still in its early days, with potential stumbling blocks for manufacturers and consumers alike.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 02, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Trans fats -- A Jan. 23 Health section article on trans fats said Denmark had banned the sale of processed foods with more than 2% of calories derived from trans fats. The law is actually stricter, limiting the content of man-made trans fats to 2% or less of the oil or fat in a food. Thus, in a food deriving 10% of calories from fat, only 0.2% of total calories can come from trans fats.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday February 06, 2006 Home Edition Health Part F Page 9 Features Desk 1 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction
Trans fats -- A Jan. 23 Health section article on trans fats in foods said Denmark has banned the sale of processed foods with more than 2% of their calories derived from trans fats. The law is actually stricter, limiting the content of man-made trans fats to 2% or less of the oil or fat contained in a food. Thus, in a food deriving 10% of its calories from fat, only 0.2% of total calories could come from trans fats.
Food labels, even if they declare that a foodstuff contains no trans fats per serving, can actually contain small amounts of the fat. Under the new labeling regulations, any food with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can declare its contents as zero grams. (In contrast, the cut-off in Canada is set at 0.2 grams.)
Those "zeros" could easily mount up, especially if one's idea of a serving is four times that of the manufacturer's. " 'Zero' conveys something that for some products they know to be false," says Dr. Carlos Camargo, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard Medical School. "If there's trans fats in the product, they should say 'less than 0.5,' or 'low,' or 'unable to measure,' or something -- but they shouldn't say 'zero.' "
Nutrition researchers still debate what the best, most heart-healthful trans fat substitutes are for foodstuffs such as pies and cookies that require fats to be hard at room temperature. Palm oil? Coconut oil? Stearic acid? The saturated fat found in animal fats?
"We all kind of dance around this because we just don't know what's a real good substitute right now," says Penny Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.
And even with trans fats going, going, gone, nobody could call all these chips, pies, pizza and cookies health foods. Many of them will continue to contain plenty of saturated fat, unneeded calories devoid of vitamins, fiber and minerals, and impressive quantities of refined starch and sugar. A few formulations, in the effort to replace trans fats with saturated fats, have actually ended up with more total fat than they had before.
Some heart and nutrition specialists are concerned that the issue of saturated fats will be eclipsed by the current trans mania. Trans fats are deemed by many to be worse -- maybe significantly worse -- for the heart than are saturateds. But we eat much more saturated fat than we do trans fat (13% of our daily calories come from saturated fats, on average, compared with 2.6% for trans).
"Both should be reduced in the diet. It's not an either/or situation," says Dr. Scott Grundy, director of the center for human nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
In short, Americans shouldn't embrace the removal of trans fats as a license to gorge on snacks, as some people did with fat-free foods a decade ago.
Phasing out trans fats
To get a sense of the change taking place in packaged food, pick an aisle, any food aisle in the market and you'll probably find something that's had its recipe re-jiggered to kick out trans.
Changed, in the breakfast section, are toaster pastries and breakfast bars. Changed, nearby, are some cheesy fish-shaped crackers and woven wheat ones -- as are breaded chickens, kids' meals and a thin-crust pizza in the frozen food case, plus a whole bunch of potato chips, corn chips, tortilla chips, popcorn and other crunchy items over in the snack foods aisle.
Crisco, of all things, traditionally made of vegetable shortening and the ultimate trans-fat offering, can now be bought in a trans-free formulation. ("Traditional" Crisco will remain available for all those who prefer it for their baking needs, says J.M. Smucker Co. spokeswoman Maribeth Badertscher.)
Outside the store, perky Girl Scouts will soon be peddling freshly trans-free cookies including Thin Mints. The organization promises to purge trans from more of its cookies down the road.
"I think it's tremendous progress," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has campaigned for years for the removal of trans fats. "Partially hydrogenated oils' days are numbered ... I think they'll be gone within three to five years."
Who would have thought it would come to this?