Now, the measurement of 0.5 grams is a little hard for many of us to grasp. I know it is for me, anyway, and I’m from Canada, where the metric system of measures was “adopted” (some say it was more like “forced on them” – but that’s another story…) many years ago. So I sat down and tried to find some frame of reference that I could wrap my brain around and make some sense of.
First I thought, what are trans fats? They are simply fatty acids – oils – that have been modified by the addition of hydrogen molecules, usually on purpose in order to solidify liquid oil into margarine or shortening. Sometimes fats are damaged by processing or heat, and can become trans too. This process is called hydrogenation – it basically takes a less dense liquid oil and alters it so that its molecules can “pack together” more tightly, hence becoming more solid.
OK, enough of the science – my eyes were beginning to glaze over just trying to explain it. In practical terms, what I was after was some sort of understandable reference to help me get a grok on just how much is a half a gram of fat – trans or otherwise. So I got out my trusty Lyman electronic scale, which measures in those esoteric gram units, and I measured some stuff. Like coconut oil, which is a saturated fat, and similar in some ways to those trans fats in that it is fairly solid at room temperature. It turns out that when coconut oil is fully warm and liquid, a half a gram of it is just less than a quarter teaspoon full. When it is cold and hard or solid, like margarine, it is about half that volume – it “packs together” into about one-eighth of a teaspoon. Put another way, a 0.5 gram bit of solid fat, which is pretty much what trans fat is, is a chunk about the size of my thumbnail – and I have big, “guy-size” fingers.
So, the bottom line here is that the FDA says that as long as someone doesn’t put more than about an eighth of a teaspoonful of trans fats into a single serving of a food then they get to make that coveted “Zero Grams of Trans Fat!” claim. Wow! Seems to me there might be a little bit of “slack” in all this for the food manufacturers…
Think about it: you’re a food manufacturer of, say potato chips – nice, greasy, salty potato chips. You sell them by the “family size” bag, though you know that one of those bags is about what the average American junk-food junkie will eat in a single sitting. Your analysis comes back with the results that there is a gram of trans fat in, say, thirty of your chips. Hmmm… Not looking good… But wait! Here’s an idea: let’s call the “serving size” 15 chips. No, make it 12 chips, just to be safe. Now you get to put a big, exciting notice on your bag of greasy chips: “0 Grams Trans-Fats!” and crow about how healthy they are! And it’s all FDA approved!
Folks, maybe it’s time we held our food industry and our FDA – and yes, it is our FDA – to a little bit higher standard. Zero means zero. No means no. None means none. It doesn’t mean “just a little bit”, or “maybe just a smidge” or “well, not really enough to be bad for you, we think.”
I recall a 2002 report from a National Academy of Sciences panel that sought to set a safe intake level for trans-fatty acids. That panel's conclusion was: "The only safe intake of trans-fat is zero."
Sounds pretty straight-forward to me – how ‘bout you?
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