In the past decade, trans fats have been painted as a food additive to be avoided – and for good reason. Study after study has found their adverse health effects to be so serious that they’ve prompted health authorities to force the amount of trans fat to be listed separately from other types of fats on nutritional labels. Some cities (like New York) and even entire countries have gone so far as to ban foods containing trans fats altogether. This is a smart move, as they are blamed for an estimated 100,000 deaths each year in the United States alone. Needless to say, it’s best for you to educate about these tricky little fats. Let’s start out with what trans fats really are.
What are trans fats?
There are two main types of trans fats. There’s the kind that occur naturally and the kind that are artificially created in an industrial process. They are not equal, and you do not need to worry about the trace amount of trans fats that occur naturally. Naturally occurring trans fats can be found in the fatty parts of a limited amount of meats and dairy products.
Artificial trans fats are created in a process called hydrogenation where hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to make them solid and less likely to spoil. When food chemists discovered they could solidify vegetable oil by heating it in the presence of hydrogen over a hundred years ago, solid vegetable fats like shortening and margarine were born. These are also called partially hydrogenated oils (these are the same as trans fats) and differ chemically from both unsaturated and saturated fats. It’s best to think of trans fats as a cheap alternative to butter that was created in a laboratory.
What do trans fats do to your body?
Consuming trans fat increases low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the bloodstream, otherwise known as “bad” cholesterol. Increased LDL is a known contributor in a whole host of known health problems, most notably coronary heart disease (the number one cause of death in the United States).
Trans fat also decreases high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, otherwise known as “good” cholesterol. HDL is necessary to remove LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream and reduces the risk for heart disease. The fact that trans fat reduces the HDL in your bloodstream is perhaps the #1 most harmful thing about it.
What kinds of foods contain artificial trans fats?
You might be surprised at how many food items that trans fats creep their way into. Here is a list of the foods to watch out for.
Baked Goods. Commercially made baked goods contain more trans fats than any other food. This includes donuts, cookies, pastries, cakes, even cake mixes and Bisquick. If you must have these items, go for the higher quality items that use real butter instead of margarine and other shortenings.
Dips and Dressings. Whipped toppings, salad dressings, nondairy creamers, and flavored coffees generally contain a lot of trans fat. Opt for the fat-free variety when it comes to these items.
Spreads. Margarine, shortenings and other non-butter spreads contain a large amount of trans fat. It is possible to find varieties that have cut them out completely, so it’s well worth looking on the labels to find them.
Canned Soups. Most soups that come in soup cups and cans contain trans fat. Ramen Noodles and other instant-type noodles are particularly bad offenders.
Chips and Crackers. Vegetable shortening gives these snacks a little extra crispiness; therefore they’re used even in brands that are marketed as low fat. Potato chips, nachos, and crackers all fall into this category.
Candy Bars. Any of the bars you see at the checkout counter at the gas station of supermarket are suspect. It goes without saying that if you're concerned about the health and appearance.
Cereal and Granola Bars. Even breakfast cereals and energy bars that are marketed as healthy can contain trans fats, so it’s best to be vigilant. Stick to brands like Kashi that are trans fat free and stuffed with fibre and protein.
Frozen Food. From frozen pizzas to chicken fingers and pies, if it’s in the freezer aisle, it likely has trans fat in it. Again, check the labeling here to be safe.
Fast Food. Now this really shouldn’t come as any surprise for making it onto this list. You already know to stay away from fast food in general if you’re trying to lose weight, and the amount of trans fat found in most fast items found at these establishments is a major reason for that. You should watch out for fries and chicken items in particular, as they’re often deep-fried in partially hydrogenated oil.
I feel it’s important to note that the FDA allows food manufacturers to label their products as trans fat free if they contain 0.5 grams of trans fat or less. Considering the American Heart Association says that you shouldn’t be consuming any more than 2g of trans fat a day, you might easily be surpassing this without even knowing it. The take home lesson here? Avoid all known sources of trans fat, and research the food your eating. It’s just not worth the risk.
*Important Tidbit *
Studies have shown that trans fat leads to further weight gain even on the same number of total calories. That means, someone who eats 2000 calories a day while consuming no trans fat at all will have a lower amount of body fat than someone who eats 2000 calories a day while consuming a small (or significant) amount of trans fat. Not only that, but that excess fat will generally head straight to the abdomen. Nobody wants that.