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The Skinny On Trans Fat

The Skinny On Trans FatIt's found almost everywhere, but even a small amount of trans fat can drive up cholesterol levels, says a nutrition expert at Tufts University.

Boston [08.15.02] Found in over 42,000 food products and considered more potent than saturated fat, trans fat is difficult to avoid. While the average American consumes close to 5 grams of the substance a day, researchers say even one gram--which can drive up LDL cholesterol levels--is too much in a healthy diet. To help better educate consumers, nutrition experts including Tufts' Alice Lichtenstein are working on new ways to inform the public about the dangers of trans fat and ways to avoid it.

"Anything above zero will increase the LDL cholesterol levels," Lichtenstein, a nutritional biochemist at Tufts University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, told the San Jose Mercury News. "If you double the trans intake, you [nearly] double the rise in LDL cholesterol. So the recommendation is to minimize it."

Trans fat occurs naturally in meat and dairy products, but can also be created in a process called hydrogenization -which helps food makers prolong the shelf-life of their products. As a result, trans fat has become nearly inescapable.

"The major sources of trans fatty acids in the diet are from partially hydrogenated vegetable fat, which is used for commercial frying," Lichtenstein told Reuters. Trans fat is also frequently found in baked goods, fast and frozen foods, candy, crackers, and even cereal.

"Any time you see the word 'hydrogenization'" on a food label, "you can assume there are trans fatty acids," Lichtenstein -- who is a professor of nutrition at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy -- told the Mercury News.

Because trans fat in any amount is unhealthy, Lichtenstein and other experts don't want to suggest a recommended upper limit on daily consumption, which has been done with saturated fat.

"It would actually send the wrong message," Lichtenstein told the Mercury News, saying it might cause some people to think they could safely consume up to that amount of trans fat without any health risks.

So experts are looking for alternative approaches to raising public awareness about trans fat, which is found in many foods, but often overlooked.

"The best advice that I think can be given to to restrict their intake of both saturated and trans-fatty acids," Lichtenstein told the newswire United Press International, stressing that one fat should not be ignored over the other.

One approach Lichtenstein and other nutrition experts are trying is to convince the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require food labels to include trans fat content alongside other required nutritional information. They've suggested including it on the same line as saturated fat.

A dual listing could work, Lichtenstein told Health Scout News, "since the [approach to addressing] them is the same -- you want to provide as simple a message as possible, which is to decrease intake."

But ultimately, sticking to a diet high in fruits and vegetables is one of the easiest ways to avoid trans fat, Lichtenstein told United Press International. People who combine fruits and vegetables with lean meat and a regular exercise routine, "are probably doing as much as they possibly can for themselves," she told the international news service.


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