What are trans fats, and why should we know how to avoid them?
Plant oils (canola, corn, soybean, etc.) are liquid at room temperature. Hydrogen added to any vegetable oil produces trans fat, which solidifies at room temperature. Using partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), a major source of trans fats, results in a quality taste, texture, and shelf stability in foods like cookies, crackers, and pastries. Although trans fats make processed foods taste their best for a longer time, they don’t help our cholesterol. At all. Read on to learn ways to eliminate trans fats in processed foods.
Why trans fats replaced animal fats and tropical oils in processed foods
In the 1960s, scientific evidence was mounting against animal fats as the culprit for heart disease. As public health messages against saturated fats grew, food companies responded by moving away from using lard and tropical oils and towards PHOs. This seemed like a reasonable, cost-effective alternative for making products shelf-stable, with good texture and appearance, and without the saturated fat. In fact, from the 1960s through the 1990s, virtually every processed food in the grocery store contained trans fat. Restaurants joined in, too. Fryer oils using trans fats do not turn rancid as quickly, so the fryer oil does not need to be changed as often. During those years, however, the scientific study of trans fat was limited.
Why trans fats are bad for you
In the 1990s, the view of trans fats started to change. Multiple studies showed the negative effects of partial hydrogenation on blood cholesterol levels. Trans fat not only increases the LDL (bad) cholesterol, but it also lowers HDL (good) cholesterol. One study associated a 2% increase in trans fat intake with a 23% increase in the occurrence of heart disease. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) eventually mandated that all packaged food labels indicate the trans fat quantity in a serving. By 2006, the New York City Public Health Department banned PHOs from all of New York’s restaurant foods. Since then, many food companies have voluntarily eliminated PHOs from their foods due to public demand.
In 2013, a preliminary determination by the FDA declared that PHOs are not “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use in processed foods. Just two years later, the FDA finally determined that manufacturers must remove artificial trans fats from processed foods. It gave food manufacturers a three-year grace period to reformulate food products without PHOs, except for naturally occurring trans fats. Natural trans fats occur in small amounts in meat and dairy, making it impossible to completely eliminate trans fat from your diet without going vegan.
The food industry has faced a huge challenge to provide quality food products without PHOs. It affects consumers because we demand quality texture and taste and want foods to last on our shelves and in our freezers. Food companies continue reformulating their products, using a combination of saturated and unsaturated oils. But these changes take time, effort, and money. Food products made before the FDA deadline may still be available in our food supply. In the meantime, check out these 6 strategies you can use now!
How to avoid trans fat
- Emphasize fresh, less-processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, poultry, fish, and nuts in your diet.
- Choose vegetable oils such as olive, safflower, sunflower, or canola oil, and avoid hydrogenated oils.
- Look for “0 g trans fat” on the Nutrition Facts label and no partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list.
- Look for “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list to avoid small amounts of trans fat. A serving with less than .5 grams per serving can appear as “zero trans fat”. Products made before the FDA deadline may still be for sale. Also, products made outside the US may contain trans fats.
Thankfully, recent food labeling laws have made it much easier to avoid trans fats. I also see all of this as another excellent reason to consider eating more fresh, less processed foods, don’t you?