The Low Down on Trans Fats

I love french fries like I love air.
I love french fries like I love air.

Last week, the FDA made a big step forward to banning artificially-made trans fats by removing it from the GRAS, Generally Recognized As Safe list of food additives. During the past ten years, many manufacturers and restaurants have phased out the use of trans fat because of the general public’s growing aversion to it. But what the heck are trans fats? Let’s break it down! (See what I did there?)

What is it?

Trans fats can be found in nature in very small quantities of meat and meat products (like dairy). However, they came into prominence when they became artificially made and introduced into food manufacturing. Simply put, artificially-made trans fats refer to liquid oils that are hydrogenated (shot with tons of hydrogen) to form a solid form of that oil.

The word “trans” refers to the carbon configuration around the double bonds of the fatty acid chain. Many oils/fats have fatty acid chains that are in the “cis” formation in which the carbons are on the same side. These are less stable and more easily metabolized than “trans” fats. “Trans” fats are in the “trans” carbon configuration in which the carbons are on the opposite sides. This makes them more stable and less easily broken down by the body. AKA We don’t want that. We want to break that stuff down and get it outta here!

What foods have it? and Why?

Think shortening and margarine as the obvious products. But we also see trans fats used in highly processed foods like french fries, cookies, chips, etc. It’s in all of these foods because it’s relatively inexpensive and is more shelf stable than other oils. Before this, manufacturers could report foods that had < 0.5 g of trans fat per serving as 0 g of trans fat. Combine that with our tendency to overeat processed foods, it’s not a surprise that we may be consuming higher than recommend levels of trans fats. Icky.

Is it safe?

When it was first created, people thought it was. But after further scientific evaluation, trans fats has been found to contribute to increased risk of cardiovascular disease by increasing our LDL (cholesterol we want to be low AKA “bad” cholesterol) and decreasing our HDL (cholesterol we want to be high AKA “good” cholesterol).  If a person is sedentary or obese, trans fats can be a part of an unhealthy diet that exacerbates existing health issues.

The bottom line:

It’s a GREAT thing that the FDA is starting to put a ban on trans fats. With all the health risks involved and healthier alternatives available, this ban can only lead to positive things. Luckily, many restaurants and manufacturers know that people are against trans fats, so they’ve eliminated it from their products and menus! Woohoo! Avoid them at all costs. I don’t like putting food under the titles “good” or “bad” but along with high fructose corn syrup, trans fats get a giant stamp of DISAPPROVAL!

Be happy and eat healthfully, friends!

Thomas Ngo, RD
Registered Dietitian
Facebook–The More You Ngo


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