Trans fat has been a prevalent topic in the health world for several years, but has recently seen a new surge in interest with a new FDA ruling. Like many topics covered by the media however, you may find yourself skeptical, concerned, or just downright confused. Have no fear — read on to get the latest and greatest deets on trans fat.
What it is: Trans fat is (most often) made through an industrial process in which hydrogen is added to vegetable oil. This process causes liquid (unsaturated) vegetable oil to become solid (saturated) at room temperature. And while some trans fat is naturally occurring (found in small quantities in some meat / dairy products), most trans fat consumed today is derived from this industrial hydrogen-adding process.
Why it’s used: Partially hydrogenated oil (hydrogenated simply means that hydrogen has been added) is less likely to spoil, so foods made with trans fats have a longer shelf life (hence why a certain cylindrical, yellow cake, cream-filled treat has been touted for its capability to last through an impending apocalypse). Additionally, some restaurants use trans fats in their deep fryers, as these fats don’t need to be changed as often as do other oils — yummy.
Why it’s harmful: The concern with trans fat is based on its unhealthy effects on our blood cholesterol levels — research has shown that it not only increases our "bad" LDL cholesterol, but also decreases our "good" HDL cholesterol. LDL is considered "bad" because it can build up on the walls of our arteries, making them hard and narrow, thus increasing our risk of developing cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death in both men and women in the U.S.). Alternatively, HDL is considered "good" because it picks up excess cholesterol in our bloodstream, taking it back to the liver for further processing.
Simply put, trans fat has been found to increase the bad stuff and decrease the good stuff — which is no fun for anyone.
Where to find it:
- Baked goods. Most cakes, cookies, pie crusts, and crackers containing shortening, which is usually made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Ready-made frosting is another source of the stuff.
- Snacks. Potato, corn, and tortilla chips often contain trans fat. And while popcorn can be a healthy snack, many types of packaged or microwave popcorns use trans fat to help cook and flavor the popcorn.
- Fried foods. Foods that require deep frying — french fries, doughnuts, and fried chicken — can contain trans fat from the oil used in the cooking process.
- Refrigerated doughs. Many refrigerator-bound products, such as canned biscuits and cinnamon rolls, often contain trans fat, as do some frozen pizza crusts.
- Creamers and margarines. Nondairy coffee creamers and stick margarines also may contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
How to avoid it: Read your food labels! Label-reading is essential in detecting the true presence of trans fats in your food products. Here’s why: In the U.S., if a food item has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat in a serving, the food label can legally read “0 grams trans fat”. But just think, what if the food item you are eating contains 0.4 grams of trans fat per serving, 4 servings per container, and you eat the entire container? Well my friend, you just ate 1.6 grams of trans fat, perhaps without even knowing it.
In addition to checking the food label for trans fat, make sure to also check the food's ingredient list for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” — this means that the food contains some trans fat, even if the amount is below 0.5 grams.
However, there is some good news related to trans fat — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that food companies have three years to phase out their use of partially hydrogenated oils from their products. So, if all goes as planned, by 2018 artificial trans fats will be a thing of the past — hooray!
The bottom line: avoid trans fats like the plague by reading the food labels and ingredient lists of the foods you buy and consume (Remember: the key is to avoid buying and consuming foods that contain the word “hydrogenated” in their ingredient lists).
Eat well (& trans fat-free),
Information adapted from mayoclinic.org