What are trans fats?! This is a question I hear quite frequently from clients, family members, and friends so I thought writing a blog about it would be a great way to make us all smart food consumers that will ultimately benefit our health! Trans-fats were invented in the 1950’s by grocery manufacturers.  Since trans-fats are more solid than oil, it allows food to stay fresh longer, have a longer shelve life because they are less likely to spoil, and have a less greasy feel.

Trans-fats are created by a process known as hydrogenation.  Hydrogenation is the process of infusing oil’s fat molecule with hydrogen atoms, which creates a denser molecule and raises its melting point, so that the oil becomes solid at room temperature.   Typically, they appear on food labels as “partially hydrogenated oil” usually with vegetable or palm oil.  Partially hydrogenated oil means that the hydrogenation process was stopped short of a full solid, creating a creamier, semi-soft consistency, much like margarine.

How do you know whether food contains trans-fat? Read the ingredient list located on the back of all food products!  Fortunately, in 2003, the Food and Drug Administration adopted regulations requiring all manufacturers to include trans-fat content on their packaging. This regulation has been mandatory for all food manufacturers since 2006. Look for the words "partially hydrogenated" vegetable oil, which is another term for trans-fat, or shortening. Although the content of trans-fats are listed on the nutrition label, it is important you read the ingredient list due to a loophole most food manufacturers revert to so they can label their foods with 0g of trans-fats.  If a serving of food has less than 0.5g of trans-fats, the label may state zero!  If you read a food label and you notice the terms "fully" or "completely" hydrogenated oil, then the product does not contain trans-fats because the process used to make fully or completely hydrogenated oil does not result in the same trans-fatty acids. Small amounts of trans-fat do occur naturally in some meat and dairy products, but it's the processed trans-fats that are linked to increased health risks.

Recently, trans-fats have stolen the spotlight and people want to know why! The negative health implications that are related to trans-fats are so staggering that it is imperative that all Americans know what is in their food.  Trans-fats have been found to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol. If your LDL level is high over time, it can cause an accumulation of fatty deposits on your artery walls which is known as atherosclerosis.  The deposits are referred to as plaque and can reduce the blood flow through your arteries.  A blood clot may form if the plaque tears away from the artery which can block blood flow to the heart or brain.  If blow flow to the heart is stopped, a heart attack occurs and if blood flow to part of the brain occurs, a stroke occurs.

Other health implications related to high trans-fat intake includes, a weakened heart, increased risk for diabetes, an increased triglyceride level, an increase in Lp(a) lipoprotein, and an increase in inflammation, which plays a major role in the formation of fatty blockages in heart blood vessels.

What should consumers do?! There is good news! Trans-fats are appearing less on grocery store shelves and some restaurants are working hard to reduce/ban the use of trans-fats in their establishments. Although most restaurants are not required to list trans-fat content, there are some establishments taking the initiative to make their food healthier for their customers.  In October of 2008, Chick-Fil-A announced they were eliminating trans-fats from every menu item. Other chains, such as McDonald's and KFC, have dropped trans-fats from cooking oil and many other products.  Some cities, such as New York City, have banned restaurants from using trans-fat and California became the first state to ban restaurant chains from using trans-fats for cooking or frying in 2008.  According the Food and Drug Administration and American Heart Association, there is no question that all individuals should limit trans-fat intake.

In summary, BE A SMART SHOPPER! Read labels and buy products with the smallest amount of trans-fat. Begin shopping for healthy fat sources that contain monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fast (omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids).  A healthy diet contains 25%-35% of your total daily calories from fat. Monounsaturated fats can be found in olive, peanut and canola oils, fish, flaxseed and flaxseed oils and is considered a healthier option than saturated fat. Nuts, fish and other foods containing unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to protect the heart from cardiovascular disease.  Omega-6 fatty acids can help lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol and can be found in vegetable oils, meat, eggs, and dairy products.