Did you think that you didn’t have to worry about trans fats?
Sadly, this isn’t true.
On January 1, 2008 the FDA issued a regulation that requires manufacturers to list trans fats on the nutrition facts labels of packaged foods. Overnight, almost every chip, cracker, cookie and croissant that was once loaded with trans fats was inaccurately labeled “zero trans fats.”
Please do not be fooled. “Zero trans fats,” according to FDA standards, does not actually mean zero, and most Americans are still consuming significant amounts of hidden, in the FDA’s own words, “extremely toxic” trans fats.
Read on to find out more about the hidden trans fats in your diet and the damaging effects they may still be having on your health!
Dangerously Over the Limit
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, trans fats kill tens of thousands of Americans each year, and they recommend that consumers completely avoid them.
The American Heart Association deems 2.0 grams per day to be the limit for safe consumption of trans fats.
According to the FDA, however, the average American still consumes 5.6 grams of trans fats per day, and according to the American Heart Association (AHA), average daily consumption may be over 12 grams a day.
Are They Really That Bad for You?
“Trans fat is, gram for gram, twice as bad for your cholesterol score as saturated fat,” says Meir J. Stampfer, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
In fact, trans fats are so bad for the heart that, according to Dr. Stampfer, if you replaced just two percent of the calories in your diet that now come from carbohydrates with trans fat, your risk for heart disease would skyrocket by 93 percent.
According to researchers, trans fats are to blame for anywhere from 70,000 to 288,000 heart attacks (fatal and nonfatal) in Americans each year.
According to the 2008 FDA regulation on trans fat labeling, a product may have less than 0.5 grams per serving and still be advertised as “zero trans fats.” As mentioned above, the American Heart Association suggests eating no more than two grams of trans fats per day.
In other words, just over four servings a day of certain packaged foods, which may not even list trans fats on the label, will put you over the recommended safety limit.
You may be thinking that you hardly ever eat four packaged foods per day, but remember, serving sizes are often deceptively small in processed foods, and it’s easy to eat two or three servings without realizing it.
Exceeding the two gram limit is very easy to do. Most folks exceed the safe range eating multiple serving sizes of a “zero trans fat” bag of chips, crackers or a handful of cookies. Keep in mind that even health food store brands may contain these harmful fats.
The Hidden Trans Fats
While the FDA has demanded trans fat labeling for packaged foods, no labels are required for foods served in restaurants. Trans fats abound in fries, buns, muffins, chips, and baked goods at restaurants, coffee shops, and almost everything in a fast food chain. These hidden trans fats are not listed anywhere, and restaurants are not required to disclose the trans fat content of the food they serve in any other way, making it impossible to know if you are ingesting it.
For the record, most fried foods and foods cooked with oil in restaurants are loaded with trans fats, as are most baked goods.
What is a Trans Fat?
Trans fats are molecularly different from naturally occurring beneficial fats, causing them to behave differently on the shelf and in your body.
• Man made trans fats stick and clump together and cause heart disease.
• Are very stable and have a long shelf life.
• Are indigestible and cause liver congestion and arterial damage.
• Raise bad LDL cholesterol and lower good HDL cholesterol.
• Beneficial natural fats don’t stick or clump inside the arteries and tissues of the body.
• Are essential for the structure of the cell wall.
• Are loaded with essential omega 3 and 6 fatty acids that humans must get in the diet as our bodies do not produce them.
In nature, most fatty acids occur in what is called the cis-configuration (good fat) rather than the trans-configuration (mostly bad fat). Molecularly speaking, the double bonds on a cis fatty acid are always on the same side of the chain. The hydrogen atoms in these bonds repel each other, forcing the fatty chain to bend or kink. This kink keeps the fats from stacking, sticking or clumping together. Imagine trying to stack bent logs—no matter how hard you try, they will never stack closely enough together to not have any space in between.
Because of this, the cis fatty acids don’t clump or stick together and thus stay thin and do not clog arteries. Moreover, they are essential as building blocks for the cellular membranes.
Trans fatty acid chains, which are mostly man-made, have their double bonds on the opposite sides. The bonds do not repel in this case, keeping the fatty acid chain straight as compared to the more natural bent cis-configuration. These straight fatty acid chains stack easily, tending to clump and stick together more easily than the cis-configurated fats. Back to our log analogy, just as straight logs will stack closely, trans fats will naturally stick, clump, and become hard.
Sticky or hard fats are much harder for the body to process, thus raising bad LDL cholesterol and lowering good HDL cholesterol. In this way, they are directly linked to cardiovascular risk.
Three Types of Trans Fats
(1) The worst type of trans fat is the synthetic form that is created as a result of oil hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is a process of driving hydrogen atoms into a fatty acid to saturate the fat with more hydrogen atoms to make it more stable, thus giving the oil a longer shelf-life.
The more saturated the fat, the stickier it becomes and the more challenging it is for the body to digest. These man-made saturated trans fats have a longer shelf life, are more stable, more solid, and much less digestible.
(2) A second structural type of trans fat is produced at very low levels when foods, especially meats and oils, are overheated or charred. They are also harmful. This is why it is recommended not to eat the skin of a chicken, or cooked fatty meats. This is also why the only truly safe oil to cook with is coconut oil, and small amounts of butter and ghee.
(3) A third type of trans fat is naturally occurring. Low levels are found in butter, dairy and some meats. These low levels of trans fats are considered safe.
Where to Look for Trans Fats
Here is a partial list of foods containing synthetic trans fats:
• Baked Goods: almost all have trans fats (due to hydrogenated oils)
• Bread: almost all have trans fats
• Butter: has a safer, natural trans fat
• Cakes and frosting: almost all have trans fats
• Cereals: some have trans fats
• Candy: most have trans fats
• Cookies: almost all have trans fats
• Crackers: some have trans fats
• Fast Foods: almost all have trans fats
• French Fries: almost all have trans fats (in oil)
• Fried Meats: almost all have trans fats (in oil)
• Ice Cream: some brands have trans fats
• Lard: some brands have trans fats
• Margarine: most brands have more than 35 percent trans fat
• Peanut Butter: some brands have trans fat
• Pies: almost all have trans fats in dough
• Pizzas: almost all have trans fats in dough
• Popcorn: almost all have trans fats in oil
• Potato Chips: almost all have trans fats in oil
• Puddings: almost all have trans fats
• Vegetable Shortening: almost all have trans fats
Just when we thought the FDA had eliminated trans fats, we find out they still loom large and we must, once again, take our health into our own hands.
Buyer, please beware: cooked-oil-derived trans fats are a recipe for disaster, but are easily avoided once you are aware of where they hide.
1. 2008 FDA Trans Fat Label Regulation
2. American Heart Association (AHA) Trans Fat Safe Ingestion Limit
3. Harvard School of Public Health
Meir J. Stampfer on Trans Fats
Editor: Brianna Bemel