We’ve all at some point seen the words “Trans Fat” in the nutrition facts of food. We associate the word “fat” with unhealthy and we completely ignore the “trans” part and what it stands for. In this post I would like to raise awareness about partially or entirely hydrogenated fats, which have been deeply integrated in the food industry today. And as much as there have been new regulations to cut them out they are still hiding in our everyday diets.
Food fats naturally occur in three general types:
1. Saturated (e.g., butter, lard, coconut oil)
2. Monounsaturated (e.g., olive or canola oils)
3. Polyunsaturated (e.g., omega-6 oils like sunflower or safflower oil, or omega-3 oils like fish and flaxseed oils)
Hydrogenation (or, more accurately, “partial hydrogenation,” as the process is incomplete) is the forced chemical addition of hydrogen into omega-6 polyunsaturated oils to make them hard at room temperatures, primarily as a cheaper and less perishable substitute for butter in crispy bread products. Common hydrogenated fats include hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated cottonseed, palm, soy, and corn oils, but theoretically almost any polyunsaturated oil can be hydrogenated.
The chemical structure of artificially hardened hydrogenated fat is, however, different from either that of a naturally hard saturated fat or naturally liquid unsaturated (mono- or poly-) oil. For this reason, hydrogenated fats are difficult for the body to “grab onto” and metabolize, and can neither be incorporated into cell structures nor excreted in the normal fashion. Thus, hydrogenated or “trans-” fats tend to remain “stuck” in blood circulation, becoming oxidized and most importantly, contributing significantly to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and possibly also cancer.
Trans fats work against the body in many ways. They increase bad cholesterol –low-density lipoprotein, or LDL — and decrease good cholesterol — high-density lipoprotein, or HDL. Furthermore, they block the production of chemicals that combat inflammation and benefit the hormonal and nervous systems, while at the same time allowing chemicals that increase inflammation. This means that trans fats promote inflammation and negatively impact cholesterol levels.
Harvard School of Public Health notes that trans fats promote immune system over-activity and inflammation and are linked to heart disease, stroke and diabetes, among other chronic diseases.
The FDA labeling Loophole
In 2015 the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) recognized the dangers of partially hydrogenated fats, and they ordered food processors to cut it out, but the agency has given food processors three years to transition to other ingredients. What a lot of people don’t know is that there is a loophole in the rules that allows processors that include 0.5 grams (or less) of this synthetic trans fats, to label their foods “Trans Fat Free” or have a 0g of trans fat in the nutritional facts. This means that a lot of food labeled free of this poison, actually contain a small amount of them that adds up through the consumption of more than one of this products a day. Partially hydrogenated oils will usually still be in the ingredients list, this is why it’s important to read both the food label and the ingredients list.
Also, The FDA rule does not prevent food processors from using other hidden sources of trans fat, such as refined oils, fully hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers, flavors and colors.
The Common Trans Fatty Foods:
- vegetable shortening
- packaged snacks
- baked goods (especially premade versions)
- ready-to-use dough
- fried foods
- coffee creamers (both dairy and non-dairy)
Hydrogenated oils go hand in hand with food preservation, so hydrogenated fat often ends up in packaged foods.
The EWG Food Score Solution.
As always at the end of my posts I like to offer viable solutions for the problems I present you with, in this case I found an initiative by the Environmental Working Group. During the phase-out period and afterwards, consumers should use EWG’s Food Scores to search for foods that are truly free of trans fats. Food Scores highlights foods that contain ingredients likely to carry trans fat and warns consumers when an item may harbor hidden trans fat.
The EWG Food Scores are available online and in app form. Besides helping you detect hidden trans fats, it also gives you an overall rating of over 80,000 products with detailed health concerns. I have found it very helpful so far and I definitely encourage you to give it a try at: http://www.ewg.org/foodscores or download the EWG’s Healthy Living app in your app store of preference.