What are trans fats?

Healthy fats, like unsaturated fats, are always present in a liquid state at room temperature, while saturated fats and trans fats, the unhealthy fats or the bad fats, are present in a solid state. Trans fat, also referred to as trans-unsaturated fatty acid or trans fatty acid, is a type of unsaturated fat.

Of all the fats, trans fat is the most dangerous for your health. Too much trans fat in your diet increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and other health problems. The more trans fats you eat, the greater is your risk of heart disease.

Trans fat is of two types:

  • One that occurs naturally in minute amounts in meat and milk fat
  • The other is artificially manufactured for use in processed foods to increase the shelf life of the food product economically.

Artificially, it is prepared from unsaturated fats by a process called hydrogenation. This makes the trans fat (and processed food) more stable, but more dangerous to health.

Trans fats are basically used to enhance the taste, consistency, and shelf life of processed foods. They are also inexpensive to produce. That is why trans-fat foods were initially so popular. In 1990, the health dangers of these fats became known and their popularity started waning.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declared these oils as unsafe for health. Many states have started banning or enforcing strict rules to reduce the content of trans fat in processed foods.

The FDA has taken steps to remove artificial trans fats from processed foods. In 2015, the FDA declared that PHOs, the major source of artificial trans fat in the food supply, are no longer “Generally Recognized as Safe,” and June 18, 2018, remains the date after which manufacturers cannot add PHOs to foods.

Trans fats may be listed as “partially hydrogenated oils” (PHOs) on the label of the product and you should avoid foods whose labels mention this content.

How is trans fat produced and why?

At room temperature, unsaturated fats are present in a liquid state. Trans fats are prepared from unsaturated oils by the process of hydrogenation, which is an industrial process. It is just an inexpensive way to extend the shelf life of foods. 

Hydrogen gas is passed through the heated and bubbling unsaturated fat oil, solidifying it. Sometimes, the hydrogen is passed halfway and you get a butter-like consistency. This is called partial hydrogenation.

Basically, liquid vegetable oils are converted into semi-solid partially hydrogenated oil.

The idea of making trans fats is to attach every unattached carbon atom of unsaturated fat with hydrogen atoms so that it is not vulnerable to oxidation by atmospheric oxygen. This enables the trans fat product to stay stable at room temperature and thus increase its shelf life.

How much trans fats should you consume daily?

Ideally, you should get 0 grams of trans fat per day. Here are the recommendations:

  • The American Heart Association recommends that you should not get more than 25% to 30% of your daily calorie intake from fats.
  • Limit saturated fat to less than 10% of your daily calories.
  • International expert groups and public health authorities recommend that your consumption of trans fats should not exceed 1% of your calorie intake. So, if your calorie intake is 2000 calories, the trans fat in your diet should not exceed 2 grams (or 20 calories).

In the body, trans fats are used as energy and broken down into CO2 and water, and removed from the body in the same way as other fats.

Examples of Trans fat foods

Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are the biggest source of trans fats because they’re cheap to manufacture and have a long shelf life.

Foods with or containing trans fats are typically processed and packed foods. Below are a few examples of trans fats foods:

  • Sugary Cereals which you eat at breakfast
  • Ice cream
  • Butter
  • Margarine
  • Cakes
  • Biscuits
  • Pies
  • Potato chips
  • Doughnuts
  • Pizzas
  • Sauces
  • Gravy mixes
  • Confectionary products
  • Artificial creamers
  • Fritters
  • Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils

Bad health effects of trans fat | Why are they bad?

There is no study yet, that shows any health benefits of trans fats. However, that trans fats are bad for your health is an established fact.

Consuming trans fat raises your LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood and reduces the HDL (good) cholesterol. This is dangerous for your health as it increases your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

The health disadvantages of trans fats are given below to show the various health disorders trans fats can cause.

Therefore, you should always examine the label of the product for trans fat content before buying any packed food. Many manufacturers and eating places have already drastically reduced the trans fat content of their products. 

How do you avoid trans fat?

  • In a typical supermarket in the U.S., about 40% of the food products on the shelf contain trans fats.
  • The U.S. Food Drug Administration has begun to advise the manufacturers of processed foods to keep the trans fat content to less than 0.5% per serving. In a typical supermarket in the U.S., about 40% of the food products on the shelf contain trans fats.

The fight against trans fats began in 2015 when the U.S. FDA put up a ban on the manufacture of these fats and their incorporation in foods.

The World Health Organization has called for a worldwide ban on artificial trans fats by 2023. You could start avoiding these fats by following these guidelines:

  • What you should eat? Stick to healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and cereals, fish, chicken without skin, lean meat, and nuts.
  • Avoid margarine as it is made up mainly of refined vegetable oil and water. Instead, opt for olive oil, grape seed oil, canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, or sunflower oil for cooking.
  • Avoid or cut down on processed foods.
  • Avoid foods whose labels mention “partially hydrogenated oil” as an ingredient.

The U.S. FDA has taken steps to remove artificial trans fats from processed foods. In 2015, FDA declared that PHOs are no longer “Generally Recognized as Safe,” and June 18, 2018, remains the date after which manufacturers cannot add PHOs to foods.