Perhaps you recall the subject of trans fats being all over the news a few years ago when the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to include trans fat content on nutritional labels. Emerging heart disease research showed a strong positive correlation between intake of these fats and the development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), so savvy consumers became concerned about foods with trans fats on the labels.
Although it was a step in the right direction, manufacturers were able to proclaim on the front of their packaging “contains zero trans fats” if there was less than a half gram of trans fat per serving. So while you may think you are making a healthy choice, by eating more than two servings of one of these products, you’re taking in more than a gram of trans fats each time you eat them. Keep in mind the recommended amount of synthetic trans fat in the diet is ZERO.
What exactly is a trans fat, why are they so deadly, and how did they get in our food?
A trans fat is basically a manipulated oil used in processed foods to increase shelf life and flavor stability. Food manufacturers start out with a cheap, unsaturated oil such as cottonseed or soybean, and then add some hydrogen atoms that undo the double carbon bonds in the unsaturated oil. This “saturates” the bonds with hydrogen, and the unsaturated oil becomes saturated, resulting in a fat that is solid at room temperature.
As an example, this is how you get peanut butter that stays solid and consistent throughout, instead of developing a separated liquid peanut oil on top. If you’ve ever purchase natural peanut butter, without hydrogenated oils on the label, you’ll notice this separation. You then have to mix it up so it’s uniform.
This artificial hydrogenation process used by food manufacturers to make a cheap unsaturated oil turn into a saturated one also does another thing. It causes the cis double bond in a molecule to bend into a trans double bond. Put simply, an unnatural bend in the compound is created. This bend does not occur in either saturated or unsaturated fats found in nature, and that’s where the problem lies.
What does this do to your body when you eat it?
Since nature doesn’t ever hydrogenate an unsaturated vegetable oil to make it into a saturated one, these artificial trans fats are not recognized by the human body as food. The human body simply does not know how to fully metabolize an artificially produced trans fat. So they remain in the body, circulating around in your blood, causing a host of problems including raising LDL cholesterol, lowering HDL, increasing insulin resistance and clogging the arteries. In a nutshell, they have devastating effects on your health. Recent studies suggest that they can also cause weight gain and even diabetes.
How Do I Avoid Trans Fats?
As we mentioned above, even if a food manufacturer states “zero trans fats” on the food label, this may simply mean there is less than half a gram of trans fats per serving. So instead, look at the ingredients label. If you see the word “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated”, the product contains dangerous trans fats and should not be consumed. No amount of synthetic trans fat is regarded as safe if your goal is to prevent belly fat and heart disease.
Thankfully today there are more and more natural versions of those foods that always contained trans fats in the past, including peanut butter, salad dressing, cookies, chips and other snacks. Although they may not taste exactly like the original, they are close enough most of the time. And you’re doing a service to your cardiovascular health by choosing these alternatives.
The big offender when it comes to trans fats are the fast food restaurants, who use these unhealthy oils in everything from fries to nuggets to burgers. Recent regulations have required restaurants to remove trans fats from their offerings. While most of these places including McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King have done so, as of this writing some places including White Castle still have some trans fats on the menu. So while we all know that fast food in general should be avoided, at least you can take some comfort in knowing that much of the trans fat has been removed and you can feel a little better the next time you have a craving.
Somebody said meat and dairy products contain trans fats. Should I avoid those too?
Meat and dairy products contain a type of fat known as vaccenic acid, which is produced by the stomach bacteria in ruminant animals. (Sounds tasty, doesn’t it?) The stomach bacteria in ruminants add a hydrogen atom during the digestion process of grass, thus producing a natural trans fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This special form of trans fat has actually been shown to reduce belly fat and protect against atherosclerosis.
So this natural trans fat is not an enemy like its artificial cousin, as studies show it actually has heart health benefits. Meat and dairy in moderation are fine, and provide many important nutrients for your body.
So what’s the bottom line when it comes to trans fats?
The important takeaway point here is to look beyond the claims stated on a product label, and instead, read the ingredients label. Look for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” to find out if a product contains deadly trans fats. If it does, do not buy it.
Don’t fear trace amounts of naturally occurring trans fats, such as those found in meat and dairy products. Synthetic trans fats can lead to weight gain, belly fat and heart disease, while naturally occurring trans fats can have the opposite effect.