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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.
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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.

Member Comments

    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. - 12/26/2013 12:48:08 PM
  • 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? - 10/14/2013 10:44:38 AM
    IT has already been proven that Saturated fats don't contribute to heart disease. - 9/24/2013 7:15:41 AM
  • 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. - 3/31/2013 9:40:35 AM
  • 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........ - 10/31/2012 7:33:19 PM
  • 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. - 9/20/2012 7:44:21 AM
    Sorry, I asked a question--should have done it on message board. - 4/17/2012 8:57:04 AM
    I would like to know more about coconut oil--explain please. I think I know answer but would like more "real" info. - 4/17/2012 8:56:11 AM
    Thank you for the good information so that we do not fool ourselves any ore. - 4/17/2012 8:53:30 AM
    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...
    - 4/11/2011 12:13:01 AM
    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


    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.) - 4/11/2011 12:07:23 AM
  • NJ_HOU
    Looking for a reason to avoid Trans Fats read from .... http://www.breast
    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 .....

    - 1/16/2011 12:45:41 AM
  • 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. - 1/7/2011 7:03:46 PM
  • 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??? - 1/5/2010 9:58:42 AM
    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. - 10/13/2009 10:32:41 AM

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