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Trans Fat

Information about trans fat (or partially hydrogenated oil) has been out for a while, but I have found that a lot of people don’t understand WHAT trans fat is, the risks associated with eating trans fat, and how to avoid products containing trans fat. I hope the summary below will help educate you (or remind you) why eating trans fat is bad for your health and your diet!. Much of the information below was taken from “The Trans Fat Solution” by Kim Severson (see bottom of page for a link to her book).

What is trans fat?

  • Trans fatty acid is the only man-made fat in the food supply.  It’s called “partially hydrogenated oil” on food labels.  Margarine and Crisco are examples of trans fat.
  • Scientifically, trans fat is made when polyunsaturated oil is bombarded with hydrogen gas and a metal catalyst.

Why people use it:

  • Food manufacturers use trans fat, because it is an inexpensive way to prolong shelf life and make food smoother, crispier, or softer.
  • Home cooks love it because it can make a piecrust nearly foolproof or give a piece of fried chicken its crispy coat.
  • Fast food outlets like trans fat because it doesn’t break down easily and can stand up to the repeated, high-heat pounding of the fryers.

The History of Trans Fat:

  • People started turning to hydrogenated oils during World War II as an alternative to rationed butter.
  • Also, in 1957, the American Heart Association’s recommendation that people reduce saturated fats in their diet led to a huge increase in trans fat consumption.
  • Because food manufacturers don’t have to list trans fat as a “saturated fat”, use of trans fat became very popular during the “low fat” craze.

Why it’s so bad for you:

  • Trans fat raises the level of bad cholesterol (LDL), which can clog the arteries and make them inflexible, leading to strokes and heart attacks.
  • Trans fat scrubs away good cholesterol (HDL) that keep arteries clean.
  • Trans fat raises other bad blood lipids that can contribute to heart disease.
  • It does these things faster:  An AHA study released in 2002 showed that food cooked with trans fat clogs arteries quicker than food cooked in animal-based saturated fat.
  • Trans fat reprograms how cells work, causing lifelong damage that can lead to diabetes, stroke, and possibly cancer.
  • The molecular structure of trans fat is so different, so unnatural, that the body has no way to know how to process it.

How to avoid trans fat:

There was a lot of hype about trans fat in the early 2000s, and starting in 2006, manufacturers were required to list trans fat on nutritional labels. So, if the product you are buying says “0g” of trans fat, you won’t eat any of the bad stuff, right? WRONG! Turns out that if a single serving of the food has less than .5g of trans fat, manufacturers are allowed to list the amount of trans fat as 0g. If a product says that it has “no trans fat”, then chances are that it does NOT contain any hydrogenated oils. The ONLY way to be sure what you are eating does not contain trans fat is to look at the label. If the words “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening” appear in the ingredient list, then it DOES contain trans fat. If “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening” appear towards the beginning of the ingredient list, it has a lot of it!

Avoiding processed and fast food is a good place to start. Other products you should look out for include:

  • Mass produced convenience and commercial bakery goods like cookies and cakes (including vanilla wafers, animal crackers, and graham crackers).
  • Cake mixes and ready made frosting
  • Biscuit, cornbread, pancake, and other bread mixes
  • Doughnuts, which are made with trans fat AND cooked in trans fat
  • Fried snacks, like potato or corn chips
  • Crackers, like Ritz
  • Croutons
  • Nondairy creamers
  • Pre-made dips
  • Whipped dessert toppings, like Cool-Whip
  • Margarine
  • Dry gravy and sauce mixes
  • Processed dinner aids (Hamburger helper, Betty Crocker complete meals)
  • Soup mixes
  • Refrigerator biscuits, piecrusts, and crescent rolls
  • Some breakfast cereals
  • Some breakfast bars
  • Some Microwave popcorn (usually not the 100 calorie low fat kind)
  • Fish sticks or other breaded frozen foods
  • Processed packaged puddings
  • Peanut butters that aren’t made naturally
  • Frozen potpies
  • Frozen pizzas
  • Frozen French fries and tater tots
  • Packaged instant noodles
  • Many flour tortillas
  • Processed cheese

“The Trans Fat Solution” is a well written book and contains a number of yummy recipes. In particular, the Fluffy buttermilk pancake recipe is delicious (although not dietetic!). You can buy the book for very little money, since it was released almost 10 years ago:

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