Trans fats, or Trans Fatty Acids, are a vegetable-based fat that is made when vegetable oils are hardened for use in shortening or margarine. Trans fats are found in baked and fried foods, such as cookies, fried fish or chicken and donuts, which are prepared using the hardened vegetable oil.
The problem with eating Trans fats is that it contributes to clogging of the arteries, increases the presence of low density lipoprotein (LDL), which is the “bad” cholesterol, reduces the presence of high density lipoprotein (HDL), “good” cholesterol and also contributes to other serious health conditions including heart disease and Type II diabetes.
Food manufacturers use Trans fats instead of healthier oils because it is less expensive, imparts a better flavor, and increases the shelf life of the products that contain them.
Up until recently, food manufacturers were not required to list Trans fats on the product labels. As a result, consumers did not know how much of the Trans fats the products contained so they were not able to make healthy decisions.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently enacted a rule which requires food manufacturers to list the presence of Trans fats on the nutrition labels. Although the FDA did not set any limits as to the percentage of Trans fats that are allowed to be present, they did say that it should be “as low as possible. These labels first started appearing in 2006.
Experts believe that there are nearly 50,000 products on the market that contain Trans fatty acids. While the term “Trans fats” might not specifically appear on the nutrition label, you will see terms such as shortening and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. The closer to the top of the nutrition label these Trans fats appear, the higher the percentage that are present.
Sometimes in an effort to eat healthier, we end up digesting Trans fat without realizing it. Stick margarine is a good example. Many people switch to margarine to reduce the quantities of real butter that they consume. Stick margarine, however, is as close to 100% Trans fat as you’ll find in a food product. The end result is that we think we are doing our body a favor by “eating healthy” when, in truth, we are treating it worse than if we continued eating butter.
Consumer health groups have begun to pressure food manufacturers to remove Trans fats from their products altogether. Some have gone so far as to file law suits demanding that a particular product be removed from the shelves unless Trans fats are eliminated from the ingredients.
As awareness levels rise, you can expect to see Trans fats all but disappear from the list of ingredients in any product where the manufacturer wants to avoid the potential legal problems and negative publicity of cooking with Trans fats. Food giants Kraft and Frito Lay, major users of Trans fats, have already publicly committed to reducing the level of Trans fats in their products.