Trans fats are a type of man made fat originally produced in the late 19th century. Scientists discovered they could create a vegetable oil that was solid (instead of liquid) at room temperature. Getting vegetable oils to act more like animal fat (butter, lard) was a boon for the food industry. Trans fats have a very long shelf life and are cheaper to use than animal fats. Unfortunately, what was good for the food industry was bad for our health1.
Trans Fats and Health
Initially, the use of trans fats made sense because saturated fats were linked to cardiovascular disease. Because trans fats were derived from vegetable oils, (unsaturated fats), they were thought of as healthy. In 1981, Welsh researchers began to think trans fats posed a cardiovascular disease risk2. In 1993, researchers looked at the diets of 85,095 women over a period of 8 years and concluded the consumption of trans fats was significantly associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease3.
Our current understanding shows a very clear link between increased trans fat consumption and heart disease. These fats lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol. The FDA says, “Removing partially hydrogenated oils [the source of trans fats] from processed foods could prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year4.”
Timeline of Banning Trans Fats
In 2006, the FDA began requiring the food industry to include trans fat content on nutrition labels. In 2013, they declared trans fats were no longer generally recognized as safe. Moving forward, the FDA intends to ban partially hydrogenated oils/trans fats from food by June 2018 with some exceptions4.
Reduce Intake of Trans Fats
Trans fats are made in a process known as hydrogenation. Hydrogen is added to an unsaturated fat, changing its structure. The result is a partially hydrogenated oil; the source of trans fat.
While manufacturers are required to list trans fat content on nutrition labels, there are some exceptions to this policy. Most notably, if a food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, the nutrition label is allowed to list the amount as 0 grams5. This may seem like a negligible amount, but consuming even small amounts of trans fat is dangerous. Furthermore, eating multiple servings of foods which “contain 0 grams” adds up to more significant levels.
The only sure way of knowing whether a food contains trans fat is to check the ingredients. Any food listing partially hydrogenated oil also contains trans fat. Avoid margarine, vegetable shortening, and any food with partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list.
The Bottom Line
Trans fats are extremely unhealthy. Luckily, the food industry is largely moving away from this ingredient. There are still holdouts and exceptions requiring you to remain vigilant in order to completely eliminate consumption of trans fats.
- Shining the Spotlight on Trans Fats. (2017, April 24).
- Thomas, L. H., & Jones, P. R. (1981). Hydrogenated oils and fats: The presence of chemically-modified fatty acids in human adipose tissue. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,34(5), 877-886.
- Willett, W., & Stampfer, M. J. (1993). Intake of trans fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease among women. The Lancet, 341(8845), 581-585.
- Food Additives & Ingredients – Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fat). (2018, February 27).
- Labeling & Nutrition – Guidance for Industry: Trans Fatty Acids in Nutrition Labeling, Nutrient Content Claims, Health Claims; Small Entity Compliance Guide. (2003, August).