Topic summary contributed by volunteer(s): Laura
Despite being cholesterol-free and vegetable-based, Crisco is an industrialized food product associated with serious health risks. With overlapping and contradicting terms and claims, it is also an excellent example of how food labeling can make it difficult to discern the nature of the food that we bring into the home.
What is Crisco?
Crisco was created in the early 20th century as an alternative to lard. It is made by processing inexpensive vegetable oils with hydrogen gas. The end product is a fat that is solid at room temperature that contains partially and fully hydrogenated fats. Partially hydrogenated fats are also called trans fats, named for their altered chemical structure. Trans fats are associated with increased risks of coronary artery disease, increased inflammation in the gut, and even reduced survival rates for certain types of cancer.
The Dangers of Trans Fats
Studies on the detrimental effects of trans fats led multiple independent health authorities to recommend avoiding all sources of foods containing these fats. Most have agreed that no amount of these saturated fats is acceptable in the diet. In light of the research, many consumers and health advocacy groups demanded transparency on nutrition labels. Trans fats were then required to be listed, but a labeling loophole was created that allows foods like Crisco to leave trans fats off their containers’ labels.
The Trans Fat Labelling Loophole
Currently, the FDA allows a food label to state “Trans Fat-free*” while still containing partially hydrogenated oils. The fine print under the claim’s asterisk reads that a single serving size containing .5 mg or less of the offending fat can be considered “free” of trans fat. Labels’ serving sizes often do not reflect the average actual amount eaten at one sitting. Should one triple the serving size, then the unwitting customer could be ingesting 1.5mg of the very fat she thought she was avoiding.