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Trans fats and processed vegetable oils are found in almost every packaged food and are linked to compromised digestive systems, and the epidemics of pre-diabetes, coronary heart disease, obesity, and cardiovascular events. (7)
Back in 2006, the FDA issued a regulation that requires manufacturers to disclose the amount of trans fats in the nutrition facts of packaged foods. The fine print: The FDA allowed companies to claim “zero trans fats” even if there is up to a half gram of trans fat in the food. It is often listed as “partially hydrogenated oil” or “shortening” on labels. (11)
To our misfortune, many foods don’t come with labels, such as those sold in bakeries, cafeterias, schools, and restaurants. Americans are still consuming significant amounts of extremely toxic hidden trans fats.
Thankfully, progress, albeit slow, is forthcoming. On June 16, 2015, the FDA set a compliance date of 3 years for companies to either reformulate their products without partially hydrogenated oils and/or petition the FDA to permit specific uses of these oils.
What are Trans Fats?
Trans fats are molecularly different (see The Structure of Trans Fatty Acid Chains section below) causing them to behave differently on the shelf and in your body:
- Trans fats stick and clump together inside the arteries (7)
- Are very stable and have a long shelf life
- Are a significant risk factor for cardiovascular events (4,5)
- Raise bad LDL cholesterol and lower good HDL cholesterol (6)
- Unsaturated fats don’t stick or clump inside the arteries (8)
- Are essential for the structure of the cell wall
- Are loaded with essential omega-3 and 6 fatty acids that humans must get in the diet as our bodies do not produce them (9)
- NOT all unsaturated fats are created equal. Be careful of refined vegetable oils. Learn more on this in my article on vegetable oils.
3 Types of Trans Fats
- The worst type of trans fat is the synthetic form that is created as a result of oil hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is a process of driving hydrogen atoms into a fatty acid to saturate the fat with more hydrogen atoms to make it more stable, giving the oil a longer shelf life. The more saturated the fat, the stickier it becomes and the more challenging it is for the body to digest. These man-made saturated trans fats have a longer shelf life, are more stable, more solid, and much less digestible.
- A second structural type of trans fat is produced at very low levels when foods, especially meats and oils, are overheated or charred. They are also harmful. This is why it is recommended not to eat the skin of a chicken, or cooked fatty meats. This is also why the only truly safe oil to cook with is coconut oil, and small amounts of butter and ghee.
- A third type of trans fat is naturally-occurring. Low levels are found in butter, dairy and some meats. These low levels of trans fats are considered safe.
The Structure of Trans Fatty Acid Chains
In nature, most unsaturated fatty acids occur in what is called the cis-configuration rather than the trans-configuration. Molecularly speaking, the double bonds on a cis-fatty acid are always on the same side of the chain. The hydrogen atoms in these bonds repel each other, forcing the fatty chain to bend or kink. This kink keeps the fats from stacking, sticking or clumping together. Imagine trying to stack bent logs – no matter how hard you try, they will never stack closely enough together to not have any space in between.
Because of this, the cis-fatty acids don’t clump or stick together and thus stay thin and do not clog arteries. Moreover, they are essential as building blocks for the cellular membranes.
Trans fatty acid chains, which are mostly man-made, have their double bonds on the opposite sides. The bonds do not repel in this case, keeping the fatty acid chain straight as compared to the more natural bent cis-configuration. These straight fatty acid chains stack easily, tending to clump and stick together more easily than the cis-configurated fats. Back to our log analogy, just as straight logs will stack closely, trans fats will naturally stick, clump, and become hard.
Sticky or hard fats are much harder for the body to process and, in turn, raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. In this way, they are directly linked to cardiovascular risk.
Dangerously Over the Limit
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, trans fats kill tens of thousands of Americans each year, and they recommend that consumers completely avoid them. (3)
The American Heart Association deems 2.0 grams (or less than 20 calories) per day to be the limit for safe consumption of trans fats. (10)
According to the FDA, however, the average American still consumes 5.6 grams of trans fats per day, and according to the American Heart Association (AHA), average daily consumption may be over 12 grams a day.
Are They Really That Bad for You?
“Trans fat is, gram for gram, twice as bad for your cholesterol score as saturated fat,” says Meir J. Stampfer, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
In fact, trans fats are so bad for the heart that, according to Dr. Stampfer, if you replaced just 2 percent of the calories in your diet that now come from carbohydrates with trans fat, your risk for heart disease would skyrocket by 93 percent! (3)
According to researchers, trans fats are to blame for anywhere from 70,000 to 288,000 heart attacks (fatal and non-fatal) in Americans each year.
According to the 2006 FDA regulation on trans fat labeling, a product may have less than 0.5 grams per serving and still be advertised as “zero trans fats.” As mentioned above, the American Heart Association suggests eating no more than 2 grams of trans fats per day.
In other words, just over 4 servings a day of certain packaged foods, which may not even list trans fats on the label, will put you over the recommended safety limit.
You may be thinking that you hardly ever eat four packaged foods per day, but remember, serving sizes are often deceptively small in processed foods, and it’s easy to eat two or three servings without realizing it.
Exceeding the 2 gram limit is very easy to do. Most folks exceed the safe range eating multiple serving sizes of a “zero trans fat” bag of chips, crackers, or a handful of cookies. Keep in mind that even health food store brands may contain these harmful fats.
The Hidden Trans Fats
While the FDA has banned artificial trans fats in foods served in restaurants, the compliance deadline is 2018 and there is not labeling requirement in the meantime.
Artificial trans fats abound in fries, buns, muffins, chips, and baked goods at restaurants, coffee shops, and most everything in a fast food chain. These hidden trans fats are not listed anywhere, and restaurants still have 2 years before they can no longer use them in food preparation, making it impossible to know if you are ingesting it.
Most fried foods and foods cooked with oil in restaurants are loaded with trans fats, as are most baked goods.
Where to Look for Trans Fats
Below is a partial list of foods containing synthetic trans fats. You should look for trans fats in any of these products:
- Baked Goods: almost all have trans fats (due to hydrogenated oils)
- Bread: almost all have trans fats
- Butter: has a safer, natural trans fat
- Cakes & Frosting: almost all have trans fats
- Cereals: some have trans fats
- Candy: most have trans fats
- Cookies: almost all have trans fats
- Crackers: some have trans fats
- Fast Foods: almost all have trans fats
- French Fries: almost all have trans fats (in oil)
- Fried Meats: almost all have trans fats (in oil)
- Ice Cream: some brands have trans fats
- Lard: some brands have trans fats
- Margarine: most brands have more than 35% trans fat
- Peanut Butter: some brands have trans fat
- Pies: almost all have trans fats in dough
- Pizzas: almost all have trans fats in dough
- Popcorn: almost all have trans fats in oil
- Potato Chips: almost all have trans fats in oil
- Puddings: almost all have trans fats
- Vegetable Shortening: almost all have trans fats
Suggestions for Cooking at Home
- Water sauté veggies (use water instead of oil as the lubricating agent) and add oil at the table.
- Try baking oil-free muffins and breads.
- Dry roast veggies and, if desired, dress with oil once they come out of the oven.
Trans fats still loom large and we must take our health into our own hands. Cooked-oil-derived trans fats are a recipe for disaster but are easily avoided once you are aware of where they hide.
Sadly, many of us have been eating these toxic fats for almost 60 years now and the result is a severely congested liver and gallbladder. In my new book, Eat Wheat, I take you through a step-by-step digestive troubleshooting process where you learn how to re-boot your digestion, decongest your liver, gallbladder and lymph, and begin to digest and detoxify the way we were designed to. >>> Learn more here
- 2006 FDA Trans Fat Label Regulation
- American Heart Association (AHA) Trans Fat Safe Ingestion Limit
- Harvard School of Public Health; Meir J. Stampfer on Trans Fats