Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Questions And Answers: Trans Fat

What are trans fats?

Trans fats are man made fats.  They are produced through the commercial hydrogenation of unsaturated oils.  Hydrogen is bubbled through the oil at high pressure in the presence of a nickel catalyst to change the structure of the chemical bonds in the oil from cis to trans.

Why do food manufacturers do this?

Hydrogenation removes essential fatty acids such as linoleic acid and alpha linolenic acid.
These fatty acids tend to oxidize over time, which can turn the fat rancid.  Therefore, a big reason why oils are hydrogenated is to increase the shelf life of the food product.  Hydrogenation also increases the melting point of oil so that the product is solid at 25° Celsius.  This acts to improve the texture and consistency of many commercially prepared foods.  Finally, using this type of oil is cheaper for the manufacturer. 

Where are trans fats found?

Trans fats are generally found in fried foods, margarines and commercially prepared baked goods like cookies, candies and cakes.   Thankfully, recent legislation has banned the use of trans fat in restaurants in many states.  It is getting harder and harder to find them, even in food products that used to contain them a few years ago.  However, they are still used and you need to become aware of which manufacturers continue to use them in their products.

What are the health effects of trans fats?

Trans fats have been shown in the research literature to have a number of negative health effects.  They raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol levels, which can have a devastating impact on risk of heart disease.  Trans fats have also been associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and possibly some cancers.

How do you know if a food contains trans fats?

Labeling laws now require the listing of trans fats on all food products.  This is great, not only because you can readily identify trans fat content, but because many manufacturers are now eliminating trans fat from their products so that they will not be perceived as unhealthy.  However, if a food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat in a serving, the manufacturer is legally allowed to list trans fats as zero grams.  This is problematic because even tiny amounts of trans fat are really harmful.  So, after checking the food label under trans fat for zero grams, you’ll also need to check the ingredient list as well.  If you see “partially hydrogenated” before any oil (IE, partially hydrogenated soybean oil) the product contains trans fat.

What are you recommendations for trans fat?

Avoid it 100%.  Treat it as if it will make you sick and shorten your life, because that is exactly what it has the potential to do.  If I was asked what is the bottom line worst thing that you can eat for your health, I would not hesitate to identify trans fat.

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