Trans fatty acids. We hear about them but what are they? Why all the fuss? Well, although a very small amount of these TFAs are found naturally in some animal-based foods, by definition they are a “specific type of fat formed when liquid fats are made into solid fats by the addition of hydrogen atoms.” In laymen’s terms, TFAs were originally added to foods to increase their shelf life. They make it simple to transport products, allow for easy commercial frying, and provide solidity at room temperature to make spreads. TFAs are present in many of the foods that line the grocery aisles: hardened vegetable oils like shortening, most margarines and spreads, commercially baked goods such as cookies, crackers, pastries, pies, doughnuts, biscuits, and some breads, and many fried foods. They are also in corn chips, potato chips, packaged popcorn, some salad dressings, and many fast foods.
As you can see, they are nearly everywhere and this is not good! Trans fats or hydrogenated fats are known to increase LDL levels (the bad cholesterol) and can lower HDL levels (the good cholesterol). They clog arteries which can lead to cardiovascular disease, increase visceral fat, contribute to insulin resistance, and cause inflammation. Yuck!
So how do we identify them on food labels? If the ingredient list of a food includes “partially hydrogenated oil”, “partially hydrogenated vegetable (or soybean, sunflower, cottonseed, or palm) oil”, “hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “shortening,” it most likely contains TFAs.
With TFAs prevalent in many foods, how much can we eat each day so we don’t suffer from heart disease, gain weight, get high cholesterol, and experience other bad stuff? Well, not as much as you might think. Americans are averaging 2 – 3% of total energy intake from TFAs. This doesn’t seem like a lot until you learn that the recommendation is to not exceed 1% of your total energy intake. For a 2000 calorie-a-day diet, this is just 2 grams. Let’s put this in perspective. The nutritional information below is from the Chips Ahoy website for their chocolate chip cookies.
Look at the nutritional label under Total Fat. Usually if trans fats aren’t listed separately, you can calculate them by taking the Total Fat and subtracting the Saturated Fat. In this case, it would be 8 grams – 2.5 grams = 5.5 grams of trans fatty acids. By eating 1 serving which is a little more than 1 ounce, you have exceeded the recommended maximum daily intake by more than 6 times! Who eats only one serving of chocolate chip cookies?!! Now read the ingredient list. See “partially hydrogenated soybean oil?” This is the TFA. It’s scary that the soybean oil isn’t one of the first 4 or 5 ingredients, because comparatively speaking, there isn’t a large amount of it in the cookies, but look at how many grams per serving it is!
What Can You Do?
Some governments are trying to help. New York, Washington DC, and certain cities and counties across the United States have enacted legislation to ban the use of TFAs in chain restaurants. You’ll also see many packaged foods separately listing the amount of trans fats on their nutritional label if they replaced the oil with a different product.
You Can Take These Steps:
- Eat more foods such as fruits and vegetables, beans, brown rice, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish and lean meats.
- Be an informed consumer. Read nutritional labels. If it says 0 grams of trans fats, also look at the ingredients. Companies are legally allowed to say 0 grams of trans fats if there is less than a half of a gram per serving. Kind of sneaky, huh?
- Make a conscious effort to reduce the amount of TFAs you eat every day because it is difficult to completely eliminate them from your diet.
Knowing all of this, you might ask yourself why companies continue to use TFAs in products. The answer should come as no surprise – it comes down to money, or more specifically, profit. Udo Erasmus (yes, this is his real name), a dietary fat expert, said it best, “TFA’s are a food manufacturer’s dream: an unspoilable substance that lasts forever.”