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F.ood & H.ealth : F.ood C.hemicals Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

Trans fats: What you need to know
By Ben Wasserman
Sep 28, 2006, 10:20

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What are trans fats?

Trans fats are partially hydrogenated vegetable oils that contain trans fatty acids. Liquid vegetable oils are transformed into trans fat in a chemical process known as hydrogenation - adding hydrogen atoms to the natural unsaturated fatty acids in vegetable oils, making the liquid oil into semisolid fat.

Why does the industry use trans fats?

Trans fats are used widely in processed food mainly for a longer shelf-life and desirable palatability including texture and mouthfeel. Sometimes trans fats also render a particular flavor profile. Solid saturated fat from animal sources may have similar functionalities. In early days, the industry actually used saturated fat such as beef tallow. Later, saturated fat was found to raise low density lipoprotein or LDL or bad cholesterol, increasing risk of coronary heart disease. Because of this, the industry shifted to use trans fats, thinking that trans fats would not have the adverse effects as saturated fat does.

What can trans fats do to damage human health?

Trans fats are worse than saturated fat, the former can raise not only bad cholesterol, but lower the high density lipoprotein or HDL or good cholesterol while the latter online raises bad cholesterol. Many randomized and controlled dietary trials have already found that consumption of trans-fats can more than raise bad cholesterol. It can promote inflammation that is implicated in many chronic diseases such as heart disease, heart attacks, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

According to scientists at Harvard School of Public Health, trans fats kill tens of thousands of Americans each year.

Is there any safety threshold for trans fats?

There is no safety threshold for trans fats, meaning intake trans fat in any amount may have an adverse effect. Nutritionists and epidemiologists at Harvard School of Public School recommend that consumers completely avoid intake of trans fat or avoid as much as they can.

How does the government say about the safety on trans fats?

The Food and Drug Administration sometimes if not always make statements like 'trans fats like saturated fat increases levels of bad cholesterol.' It does not point out other risks as often. But the FDA never says consumption of trans fats is safe as evidence suggest otherwise.

How much trans fat Americans consume each year?

Consumers in the US eat trans-fats equivalent to 2 to 3 percent of total daily calories. This translates into 4 to 6 grams each day.

Does the FDA recommend consumers avoid trans fats?

The FDA suggests consumers should not completely avoid trans fats as complete avoidance of trans fats could restrict consumers' selection of foods, potentially causing nutritional imbalance. At this time, the government suggests consumers limit their daily intake of trans fat below 1 percent of total calories, which is 2 grams of trans fat per day. But again, that recommendation does not mean 1 percent is safe. Harvard scientists say trans fats do nothing good except for energy and they recommend consumers should completely avoid trans fat.

Did the government ban use of trans fats in processed food?

No governments, federal nor state, ever ban use of trans fats in packed food or food prepared at restaurants. New York City just proposed on Sept 26, 2006 to phase out use of trans fat in restaurants. In six months, restaurants should use margarine and shortening without trans fats. In 18 months, no food prepared by restaurants should contain trans fats. But again, the new rule still allow 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving to be present in food products prepared at restaurants. Chicago city officials are also considering a voluntary ban on use of trans fat in restaurants, similar to the one that failed in New York City.

However, as of January 1, 2006, the federal government, namely the FDA does require the food industry, not the restaurant industry, label trans fat on food packaging.

Does 'zero trans fat' on a label mean the food absolutely contain no trans fat?

The FDA allows food processors to claim "zero trans fat" on the label of a food if the food contains a level of trans fat that is below 0.5 gram per serving.

How could consumers know a food contains trans fat or not?

Consumers should read both the label and the ingredient list. Claims like zero trans fat can be confusing and misleading. If consumers are told "trans fat: 0", they need to go through the ingredient list to see if there is any partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or items that contain trans fat. Sometimes, trans fats may be present in other ingredients such shortening and margarine. For vegetable oils, the producer may not list trans fat, but try to add up all types of fat including saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat to see if the total matches the total (serving) size (usually 15 grams). If both are different, then there is likely some trans fat.

Is a food with no artificial trans fat added absolutely free of trans fats?

In addition to the industrially produced trans fats, a food may contain trans fats from other sources. Meat and milk from ruminant animals contain small amounts of naturally occurring trans fat. Trans fats can be converted from natural vegetable oils at high temperatures. That is why vegetable oils being refined may contain trans fats. A food with polyunsaturated fat may produce some trans fats after it is subject to thermal treatment. The label may not tell consumers everything contained in a food. For instance, contaminants if not too much introduced during the processing are not labeled.

Related articles
New York City wants to ban artery clogging trans fat
Trans fatty acids and coronary heart disease
Healthy Heart - Avoid Trans Fats

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