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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Many snack foods and spreads on the market are now free of artery-clogging trans fat, but consumers still need to be savvy label-readers, according to researchers.
In a sampling of packaged foods at a local Wal-Mart, researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis found that a majority of margarines and butters, cookies, cakes and snack foods had gone trans fat free.
However, a number of products still had substantial amounts of the fat, the researchers report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
For example, three of 40 brands of chips, crackers and popcorn contained at least 3 grams of trans fat per serving, according to the products' labels.
So, despite the food industry's move toward cutting trans fat, consumers still need to check labels, according to the researchers, led by graduate student Matthew J. Albers.
Trans fat has become notorious because it not only raises "bad" LDL cholesterol, but also lowers heart-protective HDL cholesterol. The main source of trans fat in the diet is the partially hydrogenated oil used in many commercially prepared baked and fried foods -- including cookies, crackers, chips, breads and french fries.
Since 2006, food manufacturers have been required to list trans-fat content on products' "Nutrition Information" labels. That has spurred many brands to cut the fat out.
In their study, conducted in July 2006, Albers and his colleagues found that 21 of 29 margarines and butters were labeled as containing 0 grams of trans fat. The same was true of 34 out of 44 cookies and snack cakes, and 31 of 40 savory snacks -- chips, crackers and popcorn.
The findings show that the food industry has made "progress," the researchers say, but consumers still need to watch out for not only trans fat, but LDL-raising saturated fat as well.
"When choosing between products...the consumer should add together the trans- and saturated-fat content listed on the product label and select a brand that has the least of these two fatty acids," advised Dr. Lisa J. Harnack, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and a co-researcher on the study.
A brand of butter, for example, might have less trans fat than the margarine next to it, but contain significantly more saturated fat.
Of course, snack lovers could also pass over processed treats for a more wholesome option, like fruits and vegetables, Harnack told Reuters Health. She pointed out, however, that so-called "whole" foods are not always better than processed ones -- such as with whole milk or red meat, which contain saturated fat.
SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, February 2008.