7 Shocking Foods That Sneak in Trans Fats

Common grocery store purchases may contain higher levels of artery-clogging trans fats than you think. Here’s how to be a smarter shopper.

It’s a public health message we’ve heard plenty: Avoid trans fat.

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However, a new study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease revealed that 84 percent of packaged foods that listed “0 grams trans fat” on their Nutrition Facts label still had partially hydrogenated oil (the main dietary source of trans fat) in the ingredient list. Current laws allow companies to “round down” fewer than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to zero. While it sounds small, these tiny numbers can still have a major negative impact on your health. “We eat a lot of packaged foods,” says Dawn Napoli, RD, a registered dietitian with UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health. “Over time that can make a huge difference.”

The good news? The amount of trans fat we eat has dropped in the past 30 years, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Men are consuming 32 percent less trans fat, and women 35 percent less, than they were in 1980. Still, 1.9 percent of men's daily calories and 1.7 percent of women's daily calories come from trans fat today (the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fats to no more than 1 percent of total calories consumed). Even a few daily grams of these fats increase bad cholesterol, decrease good cholesterol, and clog arteries; and Harvard researchers estimate that trans fats cause up to 228,000 cases of heart disease and 50,000 deaths annually. Read on for 7 foods that are packing trans fat—even if the food label makes it hard to tell.

Nondairy Coffee Creamer

Half a gram of trans fat in creamer can quickly turn into multiple, since consumers tend to use more than the serving size of a teaspoon per cup (and the typical American coffee drinker guzzles an average of three cups of joe per day). On many “0 trans fat” labels, you can find partially hydrogenated oils as the second or third ingredient listed.

Peanut Butter

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Some companies use partially hydrogenated oils to achieve a long shelf life and creamy texture, so check the label. To be safe, opt for the natural variety; although it’s chunkier, it’s also healthier and normally made with just salt and peanuts—not oils loaded with trans fat.

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Popcorn

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It’s your Friday night movie staple, but microwaveable popcorn puts the spotlight on trans fats. The true culprits are toppings: Butter flavoring can include 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, while caramel flavoring can contain as many as 1.5 grams. Some extra-buttery varieties can have up to 15 grams of trans fat per bag—which is all too easy to inhale in one sitting. “Stay away from the microwave popcorn,” says Napoli. “Just do the old-fashioned air pop or use an actual oil to pop the kernels in.” 

Frozen Pizza

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Trans fat sneaks into the dough of many frozen pizzas, with about 0.3 grams in just one slice. San Diego mother of two Katie Simpson sued Nestle for $5 million last year over the use of trans fat in its frozen pizzas sold by DiGiorno, Stouffer’s, and California Pizza Kitchen. (The case was dismissed since she knowingly purchased and consumed the pizza.) One solution? Make your own pie at home. “You know what’s in the dough and you can look at the cheese ingredients and other toppings,” says Napoli. “If you’re ordering out, you can ask what type of fat they might be using. If they say margarine or shortening, you are likely getting trans fat.”

Cookies

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The Campaign to Ban Partially Hydrogenated Oils, a California non-profit corporation founded by former Washington D.C. lobbyist Stephen Joseph, sued Kraft Foods in 2003 over its use of trans fat. The case was also ultimately dismissed, but it led to the company eliminating trans fat in its Oreos in 2006. Other types of cookies may still contain them though. Read ingredient lists of packaged foods and, as with pizza, you can ask bakeries whether they use margarine or shortening, Napoli says.

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Margarine

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Margarine consumption boomed during the butter shortages of World War II, with even Eleanor Roosevelt promoting it as her toast topping of choice. But it’s a recipe for trans fat overload. To create that creamy spread, liquid vegetable oils are blasted with hydrogen. The more solid the margarine, the more it’s been hydrogenated. Many labels claim to have “0 grams” of trans fat, but if the label lists partially hydrogenated oils, those small amounts of trans fat can add up when you slather margarine on your food. “I always recommend butter versus margarine,” says Napoli. “But if you’re going to use margarine, try to use the more liquid ones. Pumps, sprays, or tubs are better than the stick."

Biscuits

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It sounds counterintuitive, but fast food biscuits are often healthier than the storebought, refrigerator-case ones you bake at home. Chains like Burger King, Popeyes, and McDonald’s now offer trans fat-free biscuits; the grocery store type can contain 3 to 5 grams of trans fat per biscuit. It’s the combination of these foods with others—think a biscuit topped with margarine—that is especially dangerous for trans fat overdose, experts say. “Consumers can’t know how much they’re consuming,” Christine Johnson Curtis, an author of the recent trans fat study, told NPR. “If they’re eating multiple products over the course of the day labeled zero trans fat, it could add up.”

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