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When Zero Doesn't Mean Zero: Trans Fats Linger In Food

Last we heard, the once ubiquitous trans fats had mostly disappeared from packaged cookies, muffins and french fries.

That's what we reported back in November 2013, when the Food and Drug Administration announced it was intending to ban partially hydrogenated vegetable oils from all food products. The proposed ban seemed prudent, since eating foods with trans fats has been linked to heart disease, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an FDA ban could prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year and as many as 20,000 heart attacks in that period.

But the FDA has yet to issue a final rule requiring food companies to eliminate trans fats entirely. In the meantime, researchers decided to find out just how many products still contain them.

Turns out it's more than you might think. While many food companies have found affordable alternatives to partially hydrogenated oil, one in 10 packaged foods still contain it, according to researchers at the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"A lot people think it's out of the food supply, but it's still in a lot of places," Christine Johnson Curtis, an assistant commissioner at the department and an author of the study, tells The Salt. It appeared Thursday in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

To figure out how stubborn many food companies have been about not removing trans fats, Curtis and her colleagues analyzed a database of 4,340 top-selling packaged foods in the U.S., including baked goods, frozen foods and snacks. The scientists compared the list of actual ingredients to the nutrition label on each package.

Of the products found to still contain the problematic oil, 84 percent were labeled as having 0 grams of it. The FDA allows companies to put 0 grams on the label even if there's up to .5 grams of trans fat in the food.

That may not seem like a lot, but Curtis says that even consuming low levels of trans fats could pose a health risk. "We have established that there's just no benefit to consuming them — they're not healthy for anyone," she says. "But [with a zero gram label], consumers can't know how much they're consuming, and if they're eating multiple products over the course of the day labeled zero trans fat, it could add up."

Of all the food products the researchers looked at, cookies and crackers were the most likely to still contain the oil.

The FDA has not indicated when it will issue a final rule, but Johnson Curtis says she's hopeful food companies will eventually be required to eliminate trans fats entirely.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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