Philadelphia and New York City will soon ban trans fats from public eateries, while 20 states are considering flunking them from school cafeterias. Sadly for the chips-and-crisps crowd, the facts are clear: No amount of trans fat is safe to eat. Waleska Cannon, RD, dietitian at Project Angel Food, an HIV nutritional service in Los Angeles, helps us translate the trans-fat facts.

What, exactly, are trans fats? They’re partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, made to replace lard, butter and palm oil to give foods a longer shelf life.

What’s so bad about them? Natural saturated fats (in dairy products, fatty meats and coconut and palm oils) boost both good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol; trans fats lower the good and raise the bad, upping heart-attack risk. For folks with HIV, who may have high cholesterol from some HIV meds, trans fats mean double trouble. (Unsaturated fats—in fish and canola, safflower, corn, olive and soybean oils—are best: They scrub cholesterol from arteries, reducing bad blood-fat levels.)

What about “No Trans Fats!” labels? Get real. The FDA allows that claim for products with less than half a gram of trans fats per serving. But given that most folks eat more than the half cup that makes a serving of ice cream, it’s likely they’re getting more trans fats. So bypass the “0 trans fats” banner and read the ingredients. If “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” oils appear, trans fats lie beneath—even if it’s just half a gram per serving).

How do your favorite fatty foods stack up?


Butter vs. margarine

Butter contains saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. Margarine is usually made from vegetable oil, so it lacks cholesterol but may have saturated and trans fats. There are a few trans fat–free margarine spreads—Benecol, Promise and Olivio, for example.
Decision: Margarine, barely. Like butter, it’s nothing to shake a stick at.

Olive oil vs. vegetable shortening
Olive oil is packed with monounsaturated fats, which reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and heart-disease risk. Most vegetable shortenings teem with trans fat (though trans fat–free versions are available). Of course, olive oil may bake a slightly odd flavor into your cookies.
Decision: You have to ask?

French fries vs. potato chips
McDonald’s french fries ooze 8 grams of trans fats per large order. The frying alone—even in vegetable oil—can create trans fats. Some potato chips bear trans fats, but in such small amounts that they don’t have to be listed on the label. If the label says “partially hydrogenated,” choose a different chip. Tortilla chips are an even better choice. Some Tostitos (Crispy Rounds, Blue Corn) don’t use a shred of hydrogenated oil.
Decision: Chips beat fries. Crunch.