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Translating Those Trans Fats

Understanding and Avoiding these Unhealthy Fats

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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!

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Member Comments

  • HAMILTE3
    Can somebody write an article on trans-fats in fish oil supplements. I have no idea if any fish-oil supplement products are without any. And I don't see the trans-fats on labels.
  • What a country. The food companies are trying to kill us. What are they going to do when they have finished killing all their companies?
  • MBENINCAS
    IT has already been proven that Saturated fats don't contribute to heart disease.
  • Im not worried about going a little over my fat intake because i take an alli fat blocker if i know im close to going over.
  • My calorie, fat's were bad, I always read the labels at the market and I always used margarine on the basic foods when making cookies, pies, cakes I used all fresh ingr. When using trans fats, always veg, oil. Wesson. sugar sub's no,.

    I just hae to be more kind to myself, that would be a better start to a rodden day.Ha Ha

    Good Luck to all of us........
  • I have a question and would greatly appreciate it if someone sparkmailed me an answer.

    Which would be better, fully hyrdogenated vegetable oil? Or more natural saturated fat like Palm oil? Both contain predominately saturated fats, palm oil maybe a little more with the hyrdogenated vegetable oil a little more polyunsaturated, but which here is better? Palm oil would be less proccessed that the chemically altered stuff to keep things like Peanut Butter the right consitency at room temperatue.
  • SANDIBETTS1
    Sorry, I asked a question--should have done it on message board.
  • SANDIBETTS1
    I would like to know more about coconut oil--explain please. I think I know answer but would like more "real" info.
  • SANDIBETTS1
    Thank you for the good information so that we do not fool ourselves any ore.
  • PIXIESTIX6669
    Don't look at the nutrition information on packaging, look at the list of ingredients...The
    re's a loophole (of course) that allows companies to list NO TRANS FATS if they use no more than .05 grams per serving! If the ingredient list has partially hydrogenated oil, it's got 0.5 grams per serving...and having just 3 or 4 items with this 0.5 grams quickly adds up to fiendish amounts of this garbage! Don't even THINK about eating fries out...
  • PIXIESTIX6669
    Once you give up trans fats, and all other unhealthy fats, you don't miss them at all. I tend to see french fries as plates of trans fats, lol, and have no desire to eat them. I've heard trans fats are so dangerous, some Euro countries have banned even the .05 grams from foods...they don't allow ANY trans fats at all...which is what this country should do...butter from grass fed cows is way healthier than trans fats

    http://www.gras
    sfedtradition
    s.com/grass_f
    ed_butter.htm

    Butter is rich in short and medium chain fatty acids, including even small amounts of lauric acid. It is rich in antioxidants as well, in the form of beta carotene, vitamin E, and selenium. It is one of the best sources of vitamin A. Because living grass is richer in vitamins E, A, and beta-carotene than stored hay or standard dairy diets, butter from dairy cows grazing on fresh pasture is also richer in these important nutrients. The naturally golden color of grass-fed butter is a clear indication of its superior nutritional value. (Searles, SK et al, “Vitamin E, Vitamin A, and Carotene Contents of Alberta Butter.” Journal of Diary Science, 53(2) 150–154.)
  • NJ_HOU
    Looking for a reason to avoid Trans Fats read from breastcancer.org .... http://www.breast
    cancer.org/ti
    ps/nutrition/
    new_research/
    20080411b.jsp title of article Trans-fats linked to breast cancer risk in study

    The study reviewed here found that eating a lot of trans fats may increase breast cancer risk. Of the 25,000 European women who participated in the study, women who had the highest levels of .....

  • Poly unsaturated oils are healthy eaten straight from the bottle, ie made into a dressing, but as soon as you heat this type of fat their molecules change and become not so healthy. There for if you are going to fry with oil you are best off using a monounsaturated oil such as avocado or Olive as these are more stable at high temperatures. A lot of takeaway joints say they are using 'heart healthy' polyunsaturated oils - which might be true if they weren't deep frying with them.
  • I am really, really worried about trans fats. It seems as if every label states there are 0 trans fat. (In fact, I have not seen a label that admits there are trans fats in a food.) Yet I understand that sometimes, especially if a product is cooked, there will be enough trans fats in the finished product. Is this so???
  • TLAUER1
    I always try to avoid trans fats at home but never thought about asking for ingredients at restuarants. This was an excellent article and gave me a lot of useful information.

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

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