Translating Those Trans Fats
Understanding and Avoiding these Unhealthy Fats
-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian and Liza Barnes, Health Educator
What do bread, crackers, cereal, macaroni & cheese, frozen pizza, donuts, and cookies have in common? Besides being at the top of the list of many people’s favorite foods, they are all possible sources of trans fats. Trans fats are oils that have been chemically-altered (through a process called hydrogenation) from their original liquid states, into solid shortening. The process increases the shelf life of the oil and improves the texture of the food to which the oil is added.
However, when you add those foods to your grocery cart, you’re increasing your risk of heart disease because trans fats are artery-clogging professionals. In fact, the Nurse's Health Study of 80,000 women found that a 2% increase in trans fat consumption increased a woman’s risk of heart disease by 93%.
Take a stroll down the cookie or snack aisle of your local grocery store and you’ll see ”No Trans Fat” or "Now with Zero Trans Fats" splattered all over food packages.
If you find yourself wondering what the heck trans fat is, how it got into your food in the first place, or why it's gone now, then read on to find the answers to these questions and more.
What is trans fat?
Trans fat is created through a process called hydrogenation, which adds hydrogen molecules to highly unsaturated (liquid) oil, such as vegetable oil, corn oil, or soybean oil. After hydrogenation, the oil is called "partially hydrogenated" when listed on the package's ingredients list, and it contains trans fats.
Why do manufacturers use hydrogenated oils?
Years ago, manufacturers predominately used animal fats such as lard, beef tallow, and butter when making baked and fried foods. Later, when scientists discovered that these saturated fats contributed to heart disease and "bad" (LDL) cholesterol levels, food companies started looking for alternatives to these saturated fats.
Hydrogenation makes oils more stable and solid at room temperature. This improves the baking characteristics of the liquid oil as well as the taste and texture of the end product. Partially hydrogenated oil provided a good alternative when it came to taste, texture, and stability, and manufacturers started using these oils instead of animal fats. Years later, scientists discovered that both saturated fat and trans fat increase the risk for heart disease.
Which products contain partially hydrogenated oil and trans fat?
Food products that contain trans fat include vegetable shortenings, harder stick margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, doughnuts, pastries, baking mixes and icings, and store-bought baked goods. You may think that trans fat primarily comes from margarine, but margarine accounts for less than 20% of the trans fat in the average American's diet. Some meats and dairy products naturally contain small amounts of trans fat.
How can I tell if a food contains trans fat?
Even though trans fats are bad for your health, and about 40% of foods on supermarket shelves contain them. To help consumers reduce the amount of trans fat in their diets, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required food companies to list the grams of trans fat that a food contains on the Nutrition Facts label. This requirement began in January 2006. But if the particular package you’re perusing entered interstate commerce before the law took effect, then the label may not be accurate.
How can a food list zero grams of trans fat on the label, but still contain partially hydrogenated oil in its ingredients?
Currently, the FDA's label regulations state that when one serving of a product contains less than 0.5 grams of any nutrient (including trans fat), then the amount is considered nutritionally insignificant and can be expressed a “0 grams” on the Nutrition Facts label. So in this case, the product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. While it may not seem like a lot, when you consume more than one serving in a sitting, or more than one serving of that food over time, it can really add up.
If the word “hydrogenated” appears in the Ingredients list, does that automatically mean that the food contains trans fat?
Not always. "Partially hydrogenated" oils DO contain some amount of trans fat, but fully "hydrogenated" oils become predominantly saturated fat and do NOT contain trans fat. These fats are included in the saturated fat listing on the Nutrition Facts label.
Do restaurant foods contain trans fat?
While food companies are required to list trans fat on their labels and are working to find healthier substitutions, the restaurant industry has not received the pressure to change. Many restaurants prefer to fry their foods using partially hydrogenated oils, resulting in a high trans fat content in the food.
For now, the best way to avoid trans and saturated fats when dining out is to skip the fried foods, including French fries and all fried vegetables, fish, seafood, chicken, appetizers, and pastries. You can also ask for an ingredients list and find out what kind of oil is used for frying or cooking. Some restaurants that voluntarily list their nutrition facts online or in print also include trans fat contents of their foods.
Is there a guideline or limit on how many grams of trans fat we should consume?
Although scientific reports have confirmed a relationship between trans fat and an increased risk of coronary heart disease, researchers have not yet established a reference value for trans fat. Instead, they are advising consumers to eat as little trans fat as possible. One study published in the journal Food and Nutrition Research found that eating more than five grams of trans fat per day can increase your risk of heart disease by 29 percent. When comparing foods at the store, choose the food that is lower in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
But you can still have your cake, eat it, and have a healthy heart too. Just avoid products that list partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or shortening as an ingredient. Your heart will thank you!