Thought saturated fats were bad for your health? Experts say trans fats are even worse.
When they were first used trans fats were thought to be a healthy option—and useful, too. They were used initially to replace saturated fats such as lard and butter, and became popular during World War II when butter was scarce. The food industry has used them to produce light, flaky pastries and crunchy crackers. The fats do not spoil easily, giving foods a long shelf life. They have a high smoking point, which makes them ideal for deep fat frying.
But experts have discovered that regularly eating foods with trans fats can increase your risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes and may increase your risk for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, infertility and blood clots. Not so great after all.
Almost all the trans fat found in our foods is created by passing hydrogen gas through vegetable oil, a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogen is added to the liquid oil to make it solid. If oil is completely hydrogenated—filled up with hydrogen—it becomes hard and waxy like candle wax and is not useful in cooking. Most vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated, resulting in stick margarines, shortenings and oils that are more stable during frying. This creates a type of fat, the “trans” form, that has many negative effects on your health.
We’ve learned that eating trans fat is as bad for us as—and maybe even worse than—eating the saturated fat it replaced.
The good news is that you can easily cut down on trans fats. The foods most likely to have them are: cookies, crackers, cakes, pastries, shortening, stick margarine, deep-fried foods, doughnuts, muffins, breaded fish and chicken nuggets, processed cheese foods, and partially hydrogenated oils. Food manufacturers and restaurants have been working to correct this problem by reformulating products to cut down or eliminate trans fats.
You will be seeing more trans fat free products as time goes on. Food consumption surveys are already showing a small but steady decline in the amount of trans fats we eat. Cutting down on or eliminating foods with trans fats will not eliminate any important nutrients from your diet. In fact, it may help you cut back on less healthy choices like French fries and cakes.
As with most scientific findings, the story of trans fat is not all bad. If a fat is totally hydrogenated it does not contain trans fats. The trans fat structure only occurs when fats are partially hydrogenated, which jumbles up the normal placement of hydrogen atoms on the carbon chain. Companies are using the process of total hydrogenation to produce new trans fat-free shortenings for use in commercial baking. They harden the fat and then add back oil to get the desired consistency. If you see fully hydrogenated or totally hydrogenated fat listed on a food label, the ingredient is trans fat free.
There are also small amounts of naturally occurring trans fat in meat, butter, milk, cheese and cabbage. These natural trans fats have a different structure than those artificially produced and may have health benefits. One natural trans fat, CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), may play a role in preventing cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Trans fats must be listed on nutrition labels, but there are a few labeling loopholes. The value for trans fat listed on the nutrition label includes both artificially produced and natural trans fat. This can be confusing because only artificial trans fat is harmful and needs to be limited. And, the trans fat values may be rounded. If a serving contains less that 0.5 grams of trans fat, the value can be listed as “0.” But even a small amount of trans fat can be damaging to your health, so these small amounts can add up with multiple servings.
To learn more about trans fat and the amount of trans fat found in thousands of foods, go to Our Books and check out The Fat Counter, 7th edition, celebrating its 20th anniversary in print.