Fats are a hot topic in the food and nutrition world, from butter getting the go ahead again, to the latest trend of coconut oil for a variety of uses. One thing that has remained static over recent years is the harmful effects of trans fat.
What are trans fats, and why are they so bad for you? This article will uncover everything you need to know about this hidden health hazard, and how you can avoid it in your diet for good.
Natural vs Artificial
Trans fat comes in two forms: naturally-occurring and artificial. Naturally-occurring trans fat is produced in the guts of animals, and can be found in trace amounts in animal-based products such as dairy and meat. This type of trans fat does not hold the same harmful effects on health as the more widely known and used artificial form.
Artificial trans fat is a food additive, made by adding hydrogen atoms at high temperatures and pressure to vegetable oils such as soybean, cottonseed, or palm oil. This process is referred to as hydrogenation. Hydrogenation transforms a liquid oil into a semi-solid fat. This fat is then used by food companies to improve flavor and texture, as well as increase shelf life in a variety of food products. Some of the most common foods containing artificial trans fat are:
- Commercially prepared cookies & cakes
- Canned frosting
- Coffee creamer
- Margarine & vegetable shortening
- Pre-made pie dough
- Cake mixes
- Fried food
Why Is It So Bad?
So why should we be so concerned about trans fat? While it may help to make products taste better and last longer, the risks that come along with it far outweigh the benefits.
Trans fat not only increases levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, but at the same time decrease the amount of HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood. This combination puts you at a much higher risk for developing heart disease, which is the number one killer in both men and women in the United States alone.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, artificial trans fat has caused over 50,000 premature deaths per year. Not only does it increase the risk of heart disease, but it has also been shown to put you at a higher risk for developing type II diabetes. A diet rich in trans fats contributes to a hardening and a plaque buildup in the arteries, increasing the chance of suffering a stroke. These risk factors combined make trans fat a serious health hazard, all of which can be prevented.
How Do I Avoid It?
The number one way to avoid trans fat in the diet is to read food labels, and avoid consuming products with added trans fats. As of 2006, food companies are required to include trans fat on food labels. However, these companies are allowed to state that a product is “trans fat free” if a food contains 0.5 grams or less of trans fat per serving.
One way you can identify if a food contains trans fats is to look for the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list. This translates into trans fat. Eating a diet rich in whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, and lean protein, and less processed and fried foods is a good way to limit your exposure to trans fat and its harmful effects on your health.
Choosing liquid oils such as olive and canola oil instead of solid margarine for cooking and food preparation is another way to avoid potential sources of trans fat in the diet. The Harvard School of Public Health found that those who replaced foods containing trans fat with those rich in polyunsaturated fat such as olive oil, salmon, avocado, and nuts had a 40 percent decreased risk of developing type II diabetes.
The Good News
The good news is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued that artificial trans fats are no longer considered generally recognized as safe to consume. This means that all trans fat added to foods or used for frying will be phased out, banning its use by food manufacturers and restaurants. In the meantime, it is a good practice to read food labels and ingredients lists, and avoid products containing added trans fat as much as possible for optimal health.