LOS ANGELES - Holy fish sticks! Scientists finally have some good news about fat.
Contrary to fears, most food companies and restaurants didn't just swap one bad ingredient for another when they cut artery-clogging trans fats from products, an analysis finds.
Even the french fry got a healthier remake. But there's still room for improvement, particularly for some items sold in groceries, which replaced heart-damaging trans fat with its unhealthy cousin, saturated fat.
A Harvard researcher and a consumer-advocacy group examined 83 foods made over since 2006. That year the federal government began requiring food labels to list the amount of trans fat in packaged products, and New York City became the first of several cities to phase them out in restaurants.
Trans fats are made when hydrogen is added to liquid oils to harden them for baking or to extend shelf life. How healthy are the reincarnations?
Harvard researcher Dariush Mozaffarian and the Center for Science in the Public Interest checked grocery products and restaurant chow for fat content.
The researchers did not do their own chemical testing but instead used Food and Drug Administration databases, nutrition labels, and industry brochures to show trans-fat and saturated-fat levels.
Results were published in a letter in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.
Nearly all of the foods analyzed were free or mostly free of trans fat. And many companies and restaurants did not spike their saturated-fat content when they cut trans fat - 65 percent of supermarket products and 90 percent of restaurant fare contained saturated-fat levels that were lower, unchanged, or only slightly higher than before.
"Companies almost always can reformulate their food to have a healthier balance of fats," said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson.
Researchers did not detail winners and sinners but did give contrasting examples:
Large order of McDonald's french fries: Trans fat dropped from 71/4 grams to zero; saturated fat went from 51/2 grams to 31/2.
An Entenmann's Rich Frosted Donut: 5 grams of trans fat to zero; saturated fat more than doubled from 5 grams to 13.
"Trans fat or not, a doughnut is still a doughnut," said David Heber, who heads the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. "Even Homer Simpson will back me up on that."