When it comes to having a healthy diet, understanding what is in your food can be more important than how it tastes. While the body needs carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for optimal performance and recovery, some fats can be more detrimental to performance and can even lead to more chronic health issues in the future. One of these fats is called trans fats.

You’ve probably heard of trans fats or seen the name on the side of potato chip bags, cracker boxes, or butter containers. These fats are incredibly unhealthy, but it is important to know why they are unhealthy and how to avoid them. By understanding why trans fats are unhealthy and what kinds of food they are present in, you can make better food choices in the future to maintain a healthy and safe lifestyle.

What are Trans Fats?

Trans fats (trans-fatty acids) are a form of unsaturated fat. These types of fats can be produced naturally and artificially. Natural trans fats are typically produced within the stomach of animals and foods made from these animals.

Artificial trans fats are created industrially, through a process that will add hydrogen to liquid oils, making the combination more solid. While natural trans fats do not cause harm when ingested, artificial trans fats can cause serious health issues.

Breaking Down the Science

Trans fats get their name (trans) from the chemical configuration of the double bond in unsaturated fats. Berardi et al. (2017) explains

… carbon-carbon bonds provide an opportunity for “cis” or “trans” configuration. Creating trans fats industrially is through the process of hydrogenation, which converts liquid oils to semi-solid oil.

While this process helps with food production, it doesn’t bode well for our bodies when we consume trans fats.

Why Are Trans Fats Bad for You?

Though trans fats may make foods taste good and last longer, they can be very detrimental to your body. Trans fat consumption is linked to increased risk of heart attacks, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. These risks are connected due to the changes in cholesterol levels within the body after long time trans fat consumption. In the human body, there is “good” and “bad” cholesterol, these types of cholesterol include:

  • Low-density lipoprotein- “bad” cholesterol. LDL can build up in arteries, making them narrow/hard and making blood flow difficult throughout the body.
  • High-density lipoprotein- “good” cholesterol. HDL takes excess cholesterol to the liver to be filtered and removed from the body.

*Lipoproteins are the proteins cholesterol travels on through the bloodstream*

So when ingesting trans fats over time, LDL levels can become high, this cholesterol can build up in blood vessels. This build-up can cause vessels to narrow, blocking blood flow to vital organs and the heart.

This blockage of blood flow to the heart can cause chest pain heart attacks. High levels of LDLs can also create blood clots, leading to a possible stroke if blood flow is blocked to the brain.

Conversely, the ingestion of trans fats will also lower the levels of HDLs within the blood over time, giving the body less of a chance to filer cholesterol through the liver and remove it from the body.

How the FDA Stepped In

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated that the amount of trans fats in food would be specified on the nutrition facts label in 2006, real change in trans fat consumption didn’t change until years later.

In 2015, the FDA declared that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs, or trans fats) were not Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). In their determination, the FDA declared a removal of (artificially generated) trans fats from food, and determined it would significantly reduce the risk of heart disease in the country.

Labels Can Be Deceiving

While the FDA mandated putting amounts of trans fats on food labels, this information can sometimes be misleading. For example, products containing 0 to .5 grams of trans fat would be labeled as containing “0 grams of trans fats”.

So before long, you could be eating more trans fats than previously thought, which over time can gradually affect your cardiovascular health. Though companies claim their foods are “trans-fat free”, they are simply listed as another name. If you see an ingredient called partially hydrogenated oil on the food label, that’s just another name for trans fats.

So, What Foods Contain Trans Fats?

While food companies are drastically reducing the amounts of trans fats in their foods, there are still several foods that still contain artificial trans fats. These foods include:

1. Vegetable shortening

Vegetable shortening is used as an alternative to butter, used in cooking and baking. It is made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (trans fats)

2. Popcorn

Some brands of microwaveable popcorn contain trans fats. Though low in fat and calories, partially hydrogenated oil is used to maintain the solid-state of the oil before it is microwaved.

3. Butter & margarine

Even though margarine is made from vegetable oils, containing unsaturated aka. 'good' fats, some margarines and butters contain trans fat. As a rule of thumb, solid margarine contains more trans fats. Look out for butter and margarine labeled as partially hydrogenated oil.

4. Fried fast food

Food is typically fried in vegetable oils containing trans fats, which soaks into the food. Even though vegetable oils are not health-damaging in the right amounts, fast food restaurants often uses vegetable oils containing trans fats, because the oil can be used over and over, saving production resources.

5. Baked goods

Since most baking recipes call for shortening, butter, or margarine, it can be difficult to avoid trans fats in these foods.

6. Frozen pizza

Trans fats are often found in the dough. You will often find these labeled as 'margarine' or 'shortening'. In stead try and make your own pizza so you can avoid any of the trans fats.

7. Crackers

Crackers can contain small amounts of trans fats. When you are looking at the box, it is usually labeled as partially hydrogenated oil.

8. Potato chips

While most chips brands are now free of trans fats, some brands still contain trans fats but under a different name, partially hydrogenated oil.

Read the Labels!

The biggest takeaway from learning about trans fats is the importance of knowing what is in the food you are eating. By looking more closely at the food labels of the items you plan to buy at the grocery store, you can allow yourself to make a more educated decision that can lead to a healthier way of living.

While avoiding trans all together may be difficult, consuming them in moderation is not necessarily the problem. But the continued consumption of these trans fats is the common link to high cholesterol, heart disease, and stroke. Making the conscious decision to limit your trans fat consumption can gradually reduce these risks and improve your quality of life!