The supermarket aisles are filled with products labeled “zero trans fats”—and that might have been your first clue that you needed to take trans fats off the menu. But do you know why—or even how to identify a trans fat?
What are Trans Fats?
Trans fatty acids—or trans fats—are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation, which makes the oil less likely to spoil. Trans fats can help manufactured foods stay fresher longer and give them a longer shelf life—but they can also have an impact on your health.
The Unhealthy Effects of Trans Fats
There are “good” fats and “bad” fats—but trans fats fall into a category all their own. Trans fats are considered the worst type of fat because they raise your “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower your “good” cholesterol (HDL). A high level of LDLs can cause a build-up of plaque and result in clogged arteries. This increases the risk of heart disease. No one knows why trans fats increase cholesterol so much more than other types of fats—but researchers have speculated that adding hydrogen to oil makes the oil more difficult to digest.
What’s more—trans fats have been shown to increase triglycerides, which are a type of fat found in the blood that leads to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and increases the risk of stroke, diabetes, and heart disease. Finally, trans fats increase inflammation, which has also been shown to play a key role in the development of heart disease.
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In short, trans fats may enhance the flavor, texture, and shelf life of foods—but they can wreak havoc on your health.
Where Trans Fats Hide
Not sure where trans fats hide? Here are some things you may want to avoid:
- Fried foods such as doughnuts or French fries may contain trans fats—depending on the type of oil used to fry them.
- Shortening and some types of margarine contain high levels of trans fats.
- Commercial baked goods, such as crackers, cookies, and cakes often contain trans fats.
- Many restaurants use trans fats to prepare food.
Avoiding Trans Fats
Trans fats are slowly becoming less common as awareness about their health risks increases. Still—buyer beware is always a good motto. If you want to avoid trans fats, here are some steps you can take:
- Eat at home. Some restaurants continue to use trans fats, so if you eat out frequently, be aware.
- Eat real, fresh food. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables and make foods from scratch. Because trans fats are generally used to increase the shelf life of products, eating fresh means you’ll most likely avoid these fats.
- Read labels. In order to identify trans fats, you have to learn the language. Watch out for the terms “partially hydrogenated” and “hydrogenated”—this is usually code for trans fats. Surprisingly, “fully” or “completely” hydrogenated oil does not contain trans fat. If the label only says “hydrogenated”, beware.
- Be skeptical. A food that has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can be labeled “zero trans fats.” That may seem like a small amount—but if you eat several servings of foods that have less than 0.5 grams of trans fats, it can add up fast.