In the 80's, when saturated fats and cholesterol were implicated as a major cause of heart disease, margarine was touted as the healthy alternative to butter, and we saw a huge push towards polyunsaturated oils like sunflower, corn oil, safflower oil, and sesame. Little did we know that these so-called healthier options would present us with one of the greatest health hazards in the history of the human diet.
The majority of trans fats found in the diet are created artificially by turning liquid oils into solid fat. Practically any vegetable oil can be turned into a trans fat, but most often, genetically modified soybean and cottonseed oils are used to make trans fat.
The process is called hydrogenation and involves bubbling hydrogen gas through vegetable oil. This transforms some of the oil's liquid (unsaturated) fat into a solid, stable fat, improving the texture and extending the shelf life of the processed foods it's added to – all at a lower cost to manufacturers. The price to consumers, however, is a different story.
Trans fats are linked to serious health conditions. They raise total blood cholesterol and LDL (the 'bad' cholesterol) while lowering HDL (the 'good' cholesterol).
Trans fats also:
- Cause a rise in apolipoprotein A, another risk factor for heart disease
- Decrease insulin sensitivity affecting blood sugar balance and leading to type 2 diabetes, and
- Enhance the production of pro-inflammatory hormones (prostaglandin E2). This is bad news for arthritics or anyone with chronic pain or allergies.
Additionally, evidence suggests that trans fats are linked to Alzheimer's Disease, depression, and raise the risk of prostate and breast cancer.
The dangerous fat is found in many brands of margarine and shortening and in many processed foods, including some you would not expect. Look for trans fats in cereals, granola bars, frozen pizza, puddings, peanut butter, instant soup mix, microwave popcorn, salty snacks, pancake mix, frozen pizza, many breaded foods (like chicken fingers, fish sticks and veal cutlets) and even powdered coffee creamer.
In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration passed a law requiring that trans fat be listed on the Nutrition Facts label on food products and in 2006 labeling became mandatory in the United States. Since then, some food manufacturers and restaurant chains have voluntarily reduced trans fats in their products, and others have eliminated them altogether.
Most products also include a 'zero trans fat' logo on the front of their packaging. Sadly, both of these proclamations are misleading! Thanks to an FDA labeling loophole, food manufacturers are permitted to state their product has "0 g trans fat" as long as there is a maximum of 0.49 grams of trans per serving. In Canada, a food product can state "0 trans fat" if it provides less than 0.2 grams of trans per serving.
Rather than counting on the Nutrition Facts panel to identify whether or not the product contains trans fats, read the ingredients list. If the term "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" is included in the ingredients, the product contains trans fats.
Close to 5,000 products on supermarket shelves claiming they have 'zero trans fats' contain partially hydrogenated oils. Betty Crocker, Nabisco, Pillsbury, Kroger, and Nestle are the major food manufacturers that have yet to remove the deadly fatsfrom their products. Read labels carefully when buying food products made by these manufacturers.
Trans fat intake among American consumers decreased from 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to about 1.3 gram a day in 2012. Yet, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the trans fats remaining in the food supply are responsible for approximately 7,000 premature deaths of Americans each year. (That number is down from 50,000 in 2009.) To prevent those deaths, in November 2013, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a ban on all trans fats. Currently, trans fats have GRAS status (Generally Recognized as Safe). Denmark banned trans fats a decade ago, proving that full elimination is feasible.
Most health organizations, including the American Heart Association, urge that trans fat is kept at a minimum, less than 1% of calories. Our recommendation, however, is zero trans fat. That's easy when your diet consists of only natural foods, foods labeled 'organic' and GMO-free.
[Editor's Note: If you want to eliminate unhealthy ingredients and chemical additives from your diet for good, click here to sign up for a Naturally Savvy Get Healthy Challenge.]
Image: Steven Depolo