Fats are one of the three essential macronutrients which give us energy, besides proteins and carbohydrates. While the word has negative connotations, not all fats are the same. Certain fats are essential for absorbing vitamins from food, building nerve tissue, and fighting inflammation. Other fats can lead to chronic diseases.
Trans fats on food labels are a red flag, and though many people have the sense that the ingredient is bad for them, few understand why.
This article explains what trans fats are, how to avoid them, and how to recognize different forms of fat – including those that may be good for the heart.
Artificial trans fats are the product of hydrogenation, or the process of turning liquid oils into solid fats to increase their shelf-life. Trans fats produced industrially, also labeled as partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), have no nutritional value and are a danger to your health.
No amount of trans fats is considered safe and the World Health Organization recommends that trans fats should constitute less than 1% of total energy intake. The U.S. and other countries have banned the use of trans fats in processed food, but they still occur in baked goods and fast food.
Trans fats also appear naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products of ruminant animals. These trans fats are generally considered safe in moderate amounts.
There are two types of fat, distinguished by their chemical structure: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are solid and mainly found in animal products, while unsaturated fats are liquid and mostly come from plant sources.
Trans fats are categorized as unsaturated because of their chemical structure: they have at least one double bond between carbon atoms. However, their double bonds have a trans configuration, while unsaturated fats have cis double bonds. This means that their melting point is higher than other unsaturated fats and they remain solid at room temperature and in the human body.
Both types of fat – trans and saturated – raise the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, known as bad cholesterol, and clog arteries. The main difference between trans and saturated fats is that trans fats also lower the high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, known as good cholesterol, making them the worst type of fat to consume.
Trans fats are found in two forms, natural and artificial.
Natural trans fats are produced through biohydrogenation in the guts of ruminant animals. They can be found in small amounts in meat and dairy products from cattle, sheep, and goats.
According to some scientists, moderate intake of trans fats from animal foods isn’t harmful. Some studies even suggest that conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of natural trans-fatty acid, may have a beneficial effect on health.
Other experts, however, maintain that there haven’t been sufficient studies to determine the effect of naturally occurring trans fats on our cholesterol levels.
Artificial or industrial trans fats pose a serious health risk. They are manufactured in an industrial process called partial hydrogenation, which involves adding hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature and extend their shelf life.
Artificial trans fats can be found mostly in processed foods, such as:
PHOs are a staple ingredient in restaurants around the world because oils with trans fats can be used multiple times, cutting the costs of meal preparation. They also give foods an appealing texture and make them tastier.
Until recently, PHOs were also used in the United States. However, the U.S. and Canada have recently placed a ban on the use of artificial trans fats in packaged food products and in food establishments. Many other countries have restricted the amount of allowed trans fats to 2 g per 100 grams of total fat.
However, trans fats are still allowed in most countries around the world.
Most trans fats are industrially produced and proven to raise the risk of the following medical issues.
Studies show trans fats raise LDL levels and decrease HDL levels, damaging the inner lining of blood vessels and increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Trans fats increase inflammation, which causes many chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, bowel disease, etc.
Some studies show an increased risk of developing diabetes due to a high intake of trans fats. Research results are inconclusive but suggest that trans fats affect insulin sensitivity by interfering with cell membrane functions.
The World Health Organization has initiated a global plan to eliminate trans fats from national food supplies by the end of 2023 because of its detrimental effect on human health.
However, people can still exceed the safe intake of trans fats, even in countries with strict regulations, due to the following:
To limit the consumption of trans fats to less than 1% of total energy intake, follow these tips:
Health experts have identified trans fats as a significant factor in developing severe, life-threatening diseases. Follow our guidelines on how to improve your diet, avoid foods high in trans fats, and increase the likelihood of a longer and healthier life.
If you would like to eat and live healthier, next learn what medical weight loss is.
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