What Are Trans Fats—and Are They Hiding in My Food?
Here’s what you need to know about trans fats.
Trans fats are undoubtedly the worst type of fat you can eat. Not all fats are bad, however, and health professionals agree that unsaturated fats found in olive oil, salmon, and avocados are part of a healthy diet. Trans fats, on the other hand, often hide in foods like margarine and vegetable shortening. These fats are a serious threat to your health—and they can increase your risk for heart disease when consumed in excess.
In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration declared that food manufacturers must remove all trans fats by June 18, 2018. While the compliance date is quickly approaching, the World Health Organization (WHO) is taking its own initiative to eliminate trans fats across the entire global food supply. According to WHO, heart disease is the leading cause of death from a non-infectious disease in the world. Acknowledging that trans fats are a global health problem, the WHO recently announced a plan to eliminate them in every country by 2023.
So, you know that trans fats are unhealthy—and that you should avoid them—but how much do you really know about them? Let’s take a closer look at trans fats, the health risks they pose, and what actions are being taken to completely phase them out of our food.
What Are Trans Fats?
The major source of trans fats in our diets is from partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). PHOs are created when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils through a mechanical process. The result is a thicker oil product that’s used by food manufacturers to help foods remain shelf-stable.
It’s important to know that some trans fats are naturally present in milk products and meat from cows and sheep. It's the artificial trans fats from PHOs, however, that are the concern.
Which foods are most likely to contain PHOs—and the artificial trans fats that they contain? According to the FDA, processed foods such as vegetable shortenings, some margarines, coffee creamer, refrigerated dough (canned biscuits and cinnamon rolls), prepared frostings, crackers, and baked goods are some of the most common sources of PHOs. But why are they used in the first place? PHOs are cheap, much more affordable than animal-based fats, and they have a longer shelf life.
Health Risks of Trans Fats
Studies show that artificial trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower good (HDL) cholesterol. Additionally, even a small amount of trans fats can increase your risk for depression, memory problems, heart disease, and stroke.
The FDA asserts that removing trans fats from foods could help prevent heart attack-related deaths. In fact, a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association determined that removing trans fats from food could stop 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 deaths caused by coronary heart disease per year.
The FDA’s 2015 ruling isn’t the first instance of a movement in the U.S. to eliminate trans fats. In 2006, former mayor Michael Bloomberg banned trans fats in New York City restaurants. A 2017 study by Yale University published in JAMA Cardiology found that hospitalizations for heart attack and stroke in New York City decreased by 6.2% between 2002 and 2013.
Outside of the U.S., Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Austria, and Hungary have already introduced legislative limits on the amount of artificial trans fats allowed in foods. According to a New York Times report, the WHO’s recent plan will target countries that lack the resources to implement trans fat bans—particularly in South Asia.
How to Avoid Trans Fats
Until the FDA’s ruling is fully enforced, there are plenty of steps you can take now to ensure that trans fats don’t sneak their way into your diet.
However, thanks to a loophole in the FDA’s current labeling laws, you may be eating artificial trans fats without even knowing it. If one serving of the food has less than 0.5g of trans fats, food manufacturers can round down to zero and declare their food trans fat–free. That means you have to do your own digging to determine if your foods contain trans fats.
Because product packaging can be misleading, the Nutrition Facts label is the best place to start. Step one: Read the trans fats line, which will always be found underneath the saturated fat line. Step two: Scan the ingredient list. If you spot any "partially hydrogenated" oil products, then you're holding a food that contains trans fats.
Lastly, if you see the line “not a significant source of trans fats,” this indicates that the product contains less than 0.5g of trans fats. (Keep in mind that the FDA does not require nutrition labeling to account for naturally-occuring trans fats.)
MyPlate, the USDA’s nutritional guidelines for Americans, recommends replacing sources of trans fat and saturated fats with heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Furthermore, sticking to a diet that encourages monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—such as the Mediterranean Diet—can help lower bad LDL cholesterol levels in your body and greatly decrease your risk for heart disease.