Don Mauer: Getting the word out on trans fats

Jun. 04, 2013 @ 08:38 AM

When we grocery shopped more than 20 years ago, we relied almost exclusively on food product ingredient lists to divine their nutritional content. Those labels listed ingredients by weight from the most to the least, but standing in a supermarket aisle attempting to quantify that list into something numerically useful required mystical powers or today's Smart Phone.
Just like everyone else, I cheered loudly when nutrition facts began appearing on food labels. Food Facts, although sometimes confusing and moderately ambiguous, made for informed and sometimes easier purchasing decisions.
It's obvious to me that detailed information on calories, fats, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, sugar and sodium should have appeared decades earlier. Better late than never, though.
Seven years ago we took another step forward on those labels with the important inclusion of hydrogenated or trans fat.
How trans fat managed to get the equivalent of a USDA "get-out-of-jail-free" card, valid for more than a decade before that, still mystifies me. I'm not privy to what goes on behind any food manufacturers closed doors, but I'll guess that more than a few breathed a collective sigh of relief when trans fat didn't make the cut on the first food fact label. Trans fat began to appear on all food labels on Jan. 1, 2006.
Goodbye "get-out-of-jail-free" cards.
Most food manufacturers would prefer that you and I make our buying decisions on the look of a food package, or the appearance of food itself, like steaming French fries or a chocolate chip muffin, than its trans fat or calorie content.
It doesn't matter to me if food manufacturer's marketing folks now consume more Pepto Bismal. Shining a bright spotlight on nutrient content, powered by correct information cannot be bad for consumers. However, some food company's bottom lines could have been threatened by trans fat facts, like Krispy Kreme was when it had trans fats in its doughnut dough and frying oil.
Where may trans fat still be found? Almost all margarines could have some, since zero on the label doesn’t mean zero in the product. If a product contains less than 0.5 trans fat grams, meaning it could have 0.49 grams, it can say “zero.” Most soft tub margarines contain less than solid sticks.
Almost any fried food could have that 0.49 grams of trans fat; as could supermarket made cookies, cakes (double whammy here, both cake and frosting) and muffins; snack foods like chips and crackers; whipped toppings, non-dairy creamers and salad dressings; frozen foods with crusts (like dessert pies, pot pies, and pizza); and last but certainly not least, ramen noodle soups.
I couldn't be more pleased that trans fat now appear on food labels and hope its appearance has pushed some food manufacturers to reduce or eliminate it in its products.
Food fact labels could still be improved, too. An aerosol cooking spray like PAM should not be allowed to use a one-third second burst as a serving size. The USDA rules state that a serving with less than 0.5 gram of any fat can be labeled as "fat free." That one-third second burst shoots out 0.27 grams of fat, thus meeting fat-free labeling requirements.
However, a "real world" one-second burst, delivering about 0.8 fat grams cannot be labeled fat-free. Aerosol cooking sprays make fat and calorie reduction in a food plan easy, there's no need to make it appear to be something it's not.
All serving sizes should be closer to a "real world" standard. A 12-ounce cola serves one, but a 20-ounce cola says it serves 2.5 people. Yeah, "Can I get three straws with my drink, please?"
A little more food fact label realism and it might actually become "really" useful.
The following salad requires minimal effort, yet tastes delicious served on the side with lunch on a hot summer afternoon or a dinner on a warm summer evening.

Don Mauer’s “Lean and Lovin’ It” column appears every other Wednesday. Don welcomes comments, suggestions and recipe makeover requests at

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Cool Green Bean and Mushroom Salad

1 pound fresh green beans
1/4 pound fresh button or white mushrooms
2 tablespoons lower-sodium, fat-free chicken broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons minced red onion
1 tablespoon minced parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper (or to taste)

Fill a 6-quart pot two-thirds full with cold water and place over high heat. Fill a large mixing bowl two-thirds full with cold water and add 15 to 20 ice cubes. Set aside. When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the green beans and cook until bright green and just barely cooked through, about 5 minutes. Immediately drain the green beans and plunge into the ice water to stop the cooking. Drain. Line a 1-gallon plastic bag with paper towels, add the green beans and chill completely.
Add the chicken broth, olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, onion, parsley, sugar, salt and pepper to a half-pint jar, cover and shake until combined. (May be refrigerated until needed.)
Cut the beans into 2-inch pieces, add them and the mushrooms to a large mixing bowl. Shake the dressing and pour over the vegetables. Using a rubber spatula to stir and toss until coated. Serves 4.
Nutrition values per serving: 79 calories(41 percent from fat), 3.6 g fat(0.4 g saturated fat), 11.2 g carbohydrates, 4.2 g fiber, 2 g protein, no cholesterol, 311 mg sodium.