It’s no secret that industrially produced trans fats really don’t belong in the foods we eat. Not only do they wreak havoc with our blood cholesterol levels... upping the bad and lowering the good, but they also promote inflammation, which is the starting point for virtually every disease process in the body.*
Many of us smugly refuse to buy any food item not specifically labeled as having “0” grams of trans fat per serving. But wait!! Products may legally contain close to (but less than) 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving and STILL be allowed to claim “0”grams. A frozen waffle at breakfast, a few crackers with lunch and a small bowl of microwave popcorn in the evening potentially add up to 1.5 grams of this substance….even though each of these items may have been labeled as having “0”grams of trans fats. Last November, the FDA recommended that industrially produced trans fats be removed from the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. We are well advised therefore, to look beyond the nutrition facts panel and its misleading message.
Instead, scour the ingredients list for the words, “partially hydrogenated”. Oils that have been “partially hydrogenated” add months to the shelf life of the processed foods they end up in. This is great news of course for food manufacturers but NOT for the rest of us since an unfortunate by product of the hydrogenation process is the formation of trans fats Other key words which indicate the presence of trans fats are: “vegetable shortening” or “shortening”. Assume that if the word “hydrogenated” appears in the ingredients list, it likely refers to “partially hydrogenated” oil and should therefore be avoided.
So where are the partially hydrogenated oils still hiding out?
Many companies have acted responsibly over the last few years to remove partially hydrogenated oils from their products, ahead of any possible mandates. This harmful substance is still widely used however and is found in a variety of processed foods throughout the grocery store. With a little detective work though, you will often be able to find brands that do NOT contain “partially hydrogenated oils” (or “shortening” /“vegetable shortening”).
Food Items by Category, which Likely Contain Partially Hydrogenated Oils
(this is NOT a complete list)
Frozen Convenience Items
Breakfast pastries/ strudel
Breakfast sandwiches on biscuits or croissant rolls
Chicken nuggets/ frozen
Frozen, breaded fried chicken
Frozen “pocket “meals
Corn based chip items (nacho chips, cheese doodles, cheese puffs, etc.)
Shoe string potato sticks
Powdered coffee creamer
Natural Sources of Trans Fat
While the main source of trans fat in our diet IS from industrially produced partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats DOES also occur in trace amounts in the milk and meat of ruminant animals (i.e. cattle, goats, sheep, deer and bison to name a few). A form of “bio-hydrogenation” occurs when these double- stomached animals turn the grass they eat into a natural form of trans fat. Research is limited, but it appears that natural trans fats are NOT associated with cardiovascular health risks, and may even be protective. More on this as research continues.**
*"Consumption of Trans Fatty Acids Is Related to Plasma Biomarkers of Inflammation and Endothelial Dysfunction". The Journal of Nutrition 135 (3): 562–566. PMID 15735094.
**Advances in Nutrition, July 2011; vol. 2: 332-354, 2011