You’ve probably heard a lot about trans fats. These fats are notoriously unhealthy, but you may not know why. Although intake has declined in recent years as awareness has increased and regulatory agencies have restricted their use, these fats still pose a public health problem. This article explains everything you need to know about trans fats.
What are Trans Fats and Where are They Found?
Trans fats are a type of fat found in some foods. Artificial trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid.
Trans fat can be found in commercial baked and fried foods made with vegetable shortening, such as fries and doughnuts. It is also found in hard stick margarines and shortenings as well as some snack and convenience foods. When you see “partially hydrogenated oil” on the label of a processed food, it means it contains these fats.
Small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats can be found in some foods, such as dairy products, beef and lamb, and some oils.
Dangers of Trans Fats
In the United States, the health effects of consuming too much trans fat are alarming. Here is a breakdown of the major dangers of consuming foods containing trans fats.
1. Impact Cholesterol Levels
Trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows clear evidence that trans fatty acids increase plasma concentrations of LDL cholesterol and decrease concentrations of HDL cholesterol.
Researchers estimate that, conservatively, 30,000 premature deaths in the United States are due to the consumption of trans fatty acids.
2. Increase Risk of Heart Disease
Excessive consumption of trans-fat foods may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Research from Harvard Medical School, which included both controlled trials and observational studies, found that consumption of trans fatty acids from partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) adversely affects multiple cardiovascular risk factors and contributes substantially to the risk of coronary events.
These findings were confirmed in a study published in the Pakistan Journal of Medicine, which suggests that high consumption of this kind of fats in Pakistan may be a factor in the increased burden of cardiovascular disease. The researchers suggest that consumption of dietary fats low in trans fatty acids would help reduce the risk of heart disease in South Asia.
3. Increase Risk of Diabetes
Trans fats have also been shown to cause obesity and diabetes. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine included more than 84,000 women who were free of heart disease, diabetes and cancer at the start of the study.
During 16 years of follow-up, the researchers recorded 3,300 new cases of type 2 diabetes, with overweight and obesity being the most important predictors. They highlighted that those who consumed the most trans fatty acids had a 40 percent higher risk of developing diabetes compared to those with lower-risk diets and lifestyles.
Which Foods Contain Trans Fats?
Trans fats are found in most commercially available fried and baked foods. Cakes, frozen pizzas, tortilla chips, cookies, crackers, coffee creamers and margarine all contain these fats. The amount or percentage of trans fat in a particular packaged food can be determined by reading the nutrition facts table. Trans fats can also be checked by referring to the ingredient list and looking for ingredients known as partially hydrogenated oils.
How to Avoid Them
It can be tricky to avoid trans fats altogether.
In the United States, manufacturers are allowed to label their products “trans fat free” as long as they contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
Apparently, a few “trans fat free” cookies can quickly add up to harmful amounts.
To avoid these fats, it is important to read labels carefully. Do not eat foods that have any partially hydrogenated items on the ingredient list.
Also, reading labels is not always in-depth enough. Some processed foods, such as regular vegetable oils, contain trans fats that are not indicated on the label or ingredient list.
A U.S. study of store-bought soybean and canola oils found that 0.56-4.2% of the fat was trans fat – with no indication on the package.
So, the best thing you can do is reduce the amount of processed foods in your diet.
Trans fats are a form of unsaturated fat that occur naturally in dairy and meat products, but are also made industrially for use in processed, packaged foods.
There are many health risks associated with these fats, including increased LDL cholesterol levels, decreased HDL cholesterol, greater risk of heart disease, greater risk of obesity and increased risk of diabetes.
In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that industrial trans fats would be banned from use in food starting in 2018. WHO has set guidelines to eliminate them globally by 2023 in an effort to save millions of lives.