Read the nutrition facts information on a food label, and your head may start spinning with all the information on various nutrients. Lately trans fats are getting the most buzz as the FDA grapples with potentially banning trans fats from the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list.
What are trans fats?
Trans fats are a type of fat either naturally occuring in small amounts in meat and dairy products or present in potentially large amounts in industrially produced foods. Basically, trans fats are formed by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil to make a fat more solid at room temperature. Trans fats increase the shelf life of a food and produce a pleasing texture or ‘mouth feel’. Fats that we purchase and consume such as olive oil, canola oil, butter, margarine, and coconut oil contain various amounts of fatty acids. These fatty acids are either saturated, unsaturated or trans fats based on their chemical structure. Fats such as olive oil and canola oil have a higher percentage of unsaturated fatty acids, while solid fats like butter have a higher percentage of saturated fatty acids.
Why do food producers use trans fats?
Trans fats were originally produced to replace saturated fats like butter and lard in foods, with the belief that any type of fat produced from vegetable oil contained health benefits. Most food producers are currently experimenting with ways to produce the same benefits as trans fats while using more healthful types of fat.
Which foods contain trans fats?
Trans fats are commonly found in these types of foods:
- baked goods like pie, cakes, and cookies
- commercial frosting
- frozen pizza
- microwavable popcorn
- coffee creamer
- refrigerator biscuits and rolls
- breaded and fried restaurant and fast foods
Why are trans fats harmful?
In the last few years scientists discovered that trans fats actually are more harmful than saturated fat because they contribute to inflammation that increases risk of heart disease and some types of cancer. Trans fats also decrease the amount of healthful HDL cholesterol in our body while at the same time increasing the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol in our body. The double whammy of increased inflammation and effects on cholesterol make trans fats the most harmful type of fat.
How much trans fats should I consume?
The current recommendation from the American Heart Association is to consume less than 1% of your total daily calorie intake from trans fats. If you consume 1800 calories, that’s 8 calories or <1g of trans fat per day.
How do I know how many trans fats are in foods?
There are three steps to understanding the amount of trans fats in foods.
1. Note the serving size of the food.
2. Read the nutrition facts label, looking for foods with zero grams of trans fats.
3. Read the list of ingredients, looking for the words hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. Hydrogenation creates trans fats. Even if the nutrition facts states ‘zero grams trans fats’ if a food contains hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils it contains some amount of trans fats. The nutrition facts are presented in whole numbers. If a serving of a food contains <.5g of trans fat, the label shows ‘zero trans fats’. If you consume several portions of the food, such as using 2 coffee creamers in each cup of coffee, and drinking 4 cups of coffee per day – you’ll consume more trans fat than you realize.
- Avoid breaded and fried restaurant and fast foods; these foods typically contain large amounts of trans fats.
- Avoid foods that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
- Choose fat-free dairy products and lean meats which contain less trans fats than full-fat dairy foods and fatty meats.