Hidden In Plain Sight

Trans Fat Hides in at Least a Quarter of Supermarket Foods

May 22, 2015

Hidden In Plain Sight: Trans Fats Hidden in Many Foods

Trans fats are everywhere in the grocery store

Table 1. Worst 16 Food Categories for Trans Fat

Food Type Average trans fat content per serving (grams)
Breakfast Sandwiches 0.94
Frozen Pies 0.83
Frosting and Icing 0.75
Eclairs and other snack cakes 0.65
Frozen Cakes 0.50
Frozen Mini Burgers 0.47
Croissants 0.43
Frozen Cheesecakes 0.41
Pastry Shells 0.37
Canned Chili without beans 0.36
Ready to heat potatoes 0.33
Frozen muffins 0.33
Beef in a can 0.32
Snack pies 0.32
Cheese sauce 0.32
Popcorn 0.31

Table 2 shows food categories that are the worst at disclosing trans fat. Foods marketed to children dominate these categories. Children’s lower calorie needs and lower trans fat limits make the lack of disclosure of trans fat content even worse.

Table 2. Worst Categories* for Trans Fat Disclosure

Food Type Percentage of foods labeled "Trans Fat 0 g" but contain partially hydrogenated oils
Breakfast Bars 100%
Granola & Trail Mix Bars 100%
Peanut Butter 100%
Pretzels 100%
Crackers 100%
Breads & Buns - Other Bread 100%
Kids Fruit Snack Candy 100%
Kids Cereal 100%
Graham Crackers 100%
Whipped Topping 100%
Non-dairy Creamers 100%
Pudding Mixes 100%
Cupcakes, Finger Cakes, Cake Snack Bars 100%
Ice Cream Cones 100%

* Categories with 25 or more products containing partially hydrogenated oils in EWG’s Food Scores

200 Ways To Smuggle In Trans Fat

EWG’s research found that trans fats are being used by the food industry in undisclosed ways. Beyond partially hydrogenated oils, other types of refined oils, emulsifiers, flavors, colors and other common ingredients contain trans fats in amounts low enough to exploit the trans fat loophole.

Contain trans fats in significant amounts:

  • Partially hydrogenated oils

    Partially hydrogenated oils are made from refined oils, like soybean and cottonseed oils, by subjecting them to a hydrogenation process.  Depending on the extent of hydrogenation, the resulting oils can contain up to 60 percent trans fat (Tarrago-Trani 2006).

Contain trans fats in smaller amounts:

  • Refined oils

    Refined oils such as soybean, canola, cottonseed and corn oil contain small amounts of trans fat (FDA 2013a). Researchers at Health Canada found that canola oil contained the most at 2.4 percent trans fat and extra virgin olive oil the least at 0.05 percent (Ratnayake and Zehaluk 2005).

    Trans fats are generated when crude vegetable oil is refined to a bland, odorless, colorless oil (De Greyt 1999). The processed food industry considers  refining essential to “improve” the oils’ “sensory value" and to make the oils more versatile and interchangeable.

    The refining process impairs the oils’ nutritional value by removing or destroying beneficial plant components. A 2012 study by FDA scientists estimated that refined oil contributes an average 0.6 grams of trans fat a day (Doell 2012).
  • Fully hydrogenated oils

    Fully hydrogenated oils are polyunsaturated oils that started out relatively benign but were subjected to high temperatures to convert them into saturated fats, which are worse for human health. Fully hydrogenated oils contain less trans fat than their partially hydrogenated cousins (FDA 2013a).

Likely contain trans fats in trace amounts:

  • Monoglycerides and diglycerides and other emulsifiers

    Fats and oils  come primarily in the form of triglycerides. Splitting triglyceride molecules with a chemical reaction produces a mixture of monoglycerides and diglycerides, which are very helpful when you’re trying to mix oil and water.  That is why they are common emulsifiers.  They are often, but not always, made from hydrogenated fats (Hasenhuettl and Hartel 2008).  Emulsifiers produced from hydrogenated fats “contain measurable concentrations of trans unsaturated fatty acids,” according to a textbook for food scientists (Hasenhuettl and Hartel 2008).

May contain trans fats in trace amounts:

  • Flavors and Colors

    Flavors often use partially hydrogenated oils as a carrier for the flavor and are another likely source of trans fats.

    Due to lax regulations consumers may never know for sure which flavors or colors (both natural and artificial) contain trans fats.

Small Amounts Matter Even More For Children

Children are perhaps most at risk from the half-gram labeling loophole. A 2012 study found that 80 percent of children under 11 exceed recommended trans fat limits (Kris-Etherton 2012).

According to the World Health Organization’s recommendations, a two-year-old with calorie needs of 1000 calories should consume no more than 10 calories from trans fat, or less than 1.1 grams a day. A food with 0.3 grams of trans fat per serving would make up nearly 30 percent of a child’s daily limit. Two servings of crackers and a bowl of cereal containing partially hydrogenated oil claiming “0 grams of trans fat” could easily exceed a child’s recommended limits.

Table 3. Trans Fat Content of Common Fats and Oils

Oil Grams of Trans Fat per 100 grams
Soybean oil 0.5
Palm oil Unknown
Canola oil 0.4
Partially hydrogenated soybean oil 34.2
Sunflower oil 0.2
Olive oil Unknown
Cocoa butter Unknown
Cottonseed oil Unknown
Corn oil 0.3
Partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil Unknown
Coconut oil 0.0
Vegetable shortening Unknown
Safflower oil 0.1
Palm kernel oil Unknown
Sesame oil Unknown
Partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil 4.7
Peanut oil Unknown
Partially hydrogenated palm oil 31.2
Butter oil Unknown
Partially hydrogenated coconut oil 0.3
Fully hydrogenated cottonseed oil 0.7
Brominated vegetable oil Unknown
Interesterified soybean oil Unknown*
Rice bran oil Unknown
Fractionated palm kernel oil Unknown*
Partially hydrogenated canola oil 27.0
Fully hydrogenated cottonseed oil 0.7
Fully hydrogenated soybean oil 1.1
Fractionated palm oil Unknown
Fully hydrogenated canola oil Unknown
Margarine 19.1 to 24.7
Partially hydrogenated sunflower oil Unknown

Unknown: The USDA laboratory did not  analyze the fat or oil for trans fat content. *Ingredient has no matching entry in the USDA National Nutrient Database. Source: US Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference

Table 3 shows 32 of the most common fats and oils listed as ingredients of processed items in EWG’s Food Score. Less than half have complete data on trans fat content.