Understanding Trans Fats
What exactly is a trans fat?
Food manufacturers know that solid fats increase the shelf life and flavor stability in many baked and processed foods, and often result in a better food product. As a result, they began changing liquid oils, such as corn and soybean, into solids by adding hydrogen. This process is called hydrogenation and results in a type of fat called trans fats.
Trans fats are different from the saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats that you probably know about. Transfats have the same effect on the heart as saturated fats—both raise low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol levels (“bad cholesterol”) and, therefore, increase your risk of heart disease. You have seen and heard about trans fats in recent years for this reason. Food manufacturers are required to include trans fat information on food labels to make it easier for consumers to know how much trans fat they are eating.
What is the difference between trans fats and saturated fats?
While some trans fats are found naturally in foods, most are liquid fats that are turned into solid fats through a chemical process. Saturated fats are found naturally in foods. The best sources of saturated fat in the diet are fatty animal foods (high-fat cuts of beef, pork, and chicken, high-fat milk and cheeses, and butter). Saturated fats also are found in two plant foods, palm oil and coconut oil.
What foods contain trans fats?
Trans fat is found in any food that contains hydrogenated vegetable oils, including shortening and margarine. In recent years, many manufacturers have made an effort to decrease trans fats in their products.
The major sources in the diet are:
- Commercial baked goods, such as cakes, cookies, crackers, pies, bread, etc
- Animal products
- Commercially fried potatoes
- Snack foods, such as potato chips, corn chips, and popcorn
You can check the Nutrition Facts food label to determine the grams of transfat in a serving (located under Total Fat).
How much trans fat is safe to eat?
Researchers still do not know exactly what level of trans fat is safe to eat. However, they have suggested that less than 1% of your total calorie intake should come from trans fat. This translates into 2−3 grams (g) of trans fats/day for individuals eating 2000−2500 calories/day.
If you begin reading food labels, you will discover that it does not take long to eat more trans fat than is suggested, especially because trans fats are found naturally in animal products. The best advice is to become aware of which foods contain trans fat and try to limit your intake of those foods.
How can I change my diet in order to eat fewer trans fats?
You can decrease your intake of trans fat by choosing your foods carefully. Plan to include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products in your daily diet. Also include lean cuts of meat, poultry without the skin, and fish, as well as dried beans and nuts.
Limiting your intake of baked goods, crackers, and cookies made with hydrogenated vegetable oils is one of the best ways to reduce transfat in your daily diet.
Is butter better for me than stick margarine?
In order to limit your intake of saturated andtrans fats, it is best to limit your intake of both butter and stick margarine. Try to use healthier liquid oils, such as soybean, canola, peanut, olive, or corn oil, instead of solid fats, such as butter, margarine, and shortening when you bake, cook, or fry foods. Spreadable margarines are recommended for use at the table, because they are low in both trans fats and saturated fats.
When you compare the ingredients of butter and margarine, you will see that the total fat is the same, but the saturated fat in butter is higher than the trans fat in margarine. That is why margarine is probably a healthier choice. Sometimes you may prefer butter—just try to use as little as possible.
What should I look for when choosing a margarine spread?
Use these tips when choosing your margarine spread. Read the Nutrition Facts food label to look for a margarine that is low in trans fats. If you are watching your calorie intake, you may prefer lower-calorie or lite margarine spreads. Some spreads are good sources of plant sterols, which are recommended to reduce risk of heart disease. Whatever the choice, remember to try to limit your intake of added fats, including margarine spreads.
References and recommended readings
Eckel RH, Borra S, Lichtenstein AH, Yin-Piazza SY; Trans Fat Conference Planning Group. Understanding the complexity of transfatty acid reduction in the American diet: American Heart Association Trans Fat Conference 2006. Report of the Trans Fat Conference Planning Group. Circulation. 2007;115:2231-2246.
Lichtenstein AH, Appel LJ, Brand M, et al. Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Circulation [serial online]. 2006;114:82-96.
Available at: http:circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/114/1/82. Accessed April 28, 2011.
http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/reprint/CIRCULATIONAHA.106.18194. Accessed February 21, 2011.
US Dept of Health and Human Services, US Food and Drug Administration. Trans fat now listed with saturated fat and cholesterol on the Nutrition Facts label.
Available at: http://www.fda.gov/food/labelingnutrition/ConsumerInformation/ucm109832.htm.
Accessed February 21, 2011.
Review Date 4/11