Trans fats are fats formed when hydrogen gas reacts with liquid vegetable oil. Sound like something only food scientists have to deal with? Think again. Chances are you’re eating trans fats every day. Chances are they could end up killing you.
Unlike other forms of fat, trans fats are not necessary for life, our bodies just don’t need them. So why are we eating them?
Why Do Food Manufacturers Use Trans Fats?
When vegetable oil is turned into trans fat, or partially hydrogenated, it becomes harder and can be used in a variety of products. Margarine, cooking fats for deep frying, shortening, and baking fats are prime examples.
Using hydrogenated vegetable oil in these products is an easy, inexpensive alternative to naturally occurring forms of hard fat. Add to this that trans fats have a very long shelf-life and you get a combination that many food manufacturers just can’t resist.
Trans fats have been used prevalently for the last twenty years, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that research began to identify their health risks.
Trans Fat Health Risks
We all know that eating saturated fats raises the level of bad cholesterol, or Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL), in our blood. But at least that’s where it stops. Trans fats, on the other hand, not only increase LDL, they also lower good cholesterol, or High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) – the substance that helps remove cholesterol build-up from artery walls.
As a result of this double-whammy, trans fats have been solidly linked to an increased risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
Trans Fat Foods
Low levels of natural trans fats occur in meat and dairy products, but the vast majority of trans fats in our diet result from the chemically made trans fats that food manufacturers add to their products.
Foods in which you’ll find trans fats include:
- Commercially baked goods – cakes, biscuits, crackers, muffins, donuts, pies
- Snack foods
- Junk foods
- Fried foods
- Microwave popcorn
One of the qualities of trans fats is that they can be used over and over again for frying – an attractive commercial aspect for restaurants and junk food retailers.
As trans fats are not needed by the body it’s questionable whether any safe level of consumption exists. However, the recommendation by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is that we should consume no more than one percent of our total daily calories as trans fats. In an average diet of 2000 calories this is less than 2 grams a day.
That’s not much to start with, but if you remember that we’re already getting some trans fat through meat and dairy products, there’s virtually no room for them to be added to our food as well.
The Good News and the Bad News for New Zealand
The good news is, that on average, New Zealanders consume less trans fats than countries like the United States. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) indicates that we obtain only 0.7 percent of our calories through trans fats, well below the WHO recommendation.
The bad news is that, unlike many other developed countries, New Zealand does not force food manufacturers to state on food labels that their products contain trans fats, unless those products make a specific fat-related nutritional claim (low cholesterol content, high EFA content etc.).
This is a particularly poor form of labelling as, for the general population, the largest source of trans fat intake is likely to be through commercial baked goods and fried junk food – foods which are not obliged to say anything about their trans fat content.
What Can You Do?
The obvious course of action is to remove trans fats from your diet as much as possible.
- Substitute healthy non-hydrogenated polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils for hard, trans fat frying oils.
- Bake at home using healthy ingredients rather than buying commercially baked goods.
- Reduce your intake of junk food and commercially fried food.
- Most importantly – read the label. Although the trans fat content may not be stated, ingredients such as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” often are. If you see the phrase partially hydrogenated anywhere on the packet, the product will contain trans fats. Leave it on the shelf.
While saturated fats and cholesterol are popular topics of conversation when it comes to health issues, trans fats have a lower profile. These fats, though, are the most dangerous we consume and turning a blind eye to them, pretending they don’t exist simply because manufacturers don’t list them, could be a sure-fire way of ending up in the cardiac ward.
See what California is doing about trans fats here:
Tags: artery walls, bad cholesterol, diet, food manufacturers, fried foods, good cholesterol, health, heart attack, heart attacks, high density lipoprotein, hydrogen gas, junk foods, low density lipoprotein, microwave popcorn, risk of heart disease, saturated fats, snack foods, trans fat foods, trans fats, type 2 diabetes