Where'd the Trans Fats go?

A few years ago Trans Fatty Acids were a hot topic. Did they go away, or did we just move on? What is Trans Fat?

The primary source of trans fat (also called trans-fatty acid, TFA) in the American diet is an artificial, or man-made fat, created when hydrogen is added to oils – a process called hydrogenation. This process was developed by food manufacturers to increase the shelf life and flavor stability of processed products.

Why is it so harmful?

Trans fats pose a high risk because they not only raise total “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, but they also deplete “good” HDL cholesterol, resulting in coronary artery disease, diabetes, and sudden cardiac death.

The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 2 grams per day for optimal health and wellness.

What foods should be avoided?

Fried foods, stick margarine, and packaged baked goods are the primary sources of trans fat, but other foods can contain significant amounts as well. Cookies, crackers, chips, salad dressings, cereals, waffles, canned biscuits and even nutrition bars can contain trans fat. With so many processed foods containing harmful amounts of trans fat, the only sure way to know is to look at the nutrition facts. The panel will contain a trans fat figure listed directly under the saturated fat content.  Look for ingredients such as “hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils”. If it's one of the first ingredients, it’s probably a significant amount.

Many food manufacturers, responding to public health pressure, are reformulating products to eliminate or reduce the amount of trans fats. Several have resisted despite the national health crisis. Kellogg’s continues to include partially hydrogenated oils in many of their cereals, including Froot Loops and Rice Krispie Treats. Girl Scout cookies now boast each serving has less than .5 grams, so the box can be labelled 0 grams while the ingredient list still includes partially hydrogenated oils.

In 2006, the FDA required manufacturers to include trans fat content on nutrition labels. There currently are no regulations for fast foods, typically high in TFA. The likelihood of eating multiple servings increases when packaged and fast foods are your primary choices.

Remember, trusted manufacturers are still using trans fats SO eating several daily servings will result in a higher than recommended intake of trans fats. Even if the marketers say “0 Trans Fat”, check processed packaged ingredient lists for partially hydrogenated oils.

What fats are “safe”

There are plenty of healthy choices when it comes to adding fat into your diet, avoiding trans fat consumption. Fish, nuts, flax and chia seeds contain enough “good” fat to allow your body to absorb vitamins and burn calories efficiently, necessary functions of fat in the body. Lean meats such as poultry and beef are other options. Cooking with olive or coconut oil is recommended, as well as substituting butter for stick margarine.

What about dairy?

Dairy foods and milk contain a small amount of naturally occurring trans fat. The amount is less than the FDA labeling threshold of 0.5 grams per serving, therefore most dairy foods will be labeled as 0% trans fat.

Recent research indicates that some naturally occurring trans fat actually have health benefits. For instance, CLA, a type of trans fatty acid found in meat and dairy, has been shown to contain cancer-inhibiting properties. Research is ongoing to identify the types and their potential benefits.

Bottom line, don’t be a victim of marketing prowess or blind trust. Read labels, use reputable resources for information (dietitians, doctors, websites such as www.mayoclinic.com.) Choose wisely, it's your health and wellness.