After years of touting the safety of margarine and products like Crisco® over traditional butter and lard, health professionals and scientists have reversed their position on trans fats by one-hundred and eighty degrees. Trans fats are now believed to be one of the largest contributors to coronary heart disease and stroke. This has led some restaurants and manufacturers to voluntarily remove trans fats from their menus and product ingredients, and the banning of trans fats in restaurants in two major U.S. cities and one state. What is the alarm? What are trans fats? How much trans fat does the average consumer ingest? How much dietary trans fats should one consume?
Short History of Hydrogenation
In the early 1900’s, German chemist Wilhelm Normann developed a process of hardening liquid vegetable oil using the process of hydrogenation, which chemically introduces extra hydrogen atoms to the fatty acid molecules present in the oil. Basically, this process is performed by heating the oil and passing hydrogen bubbles through it. This chemical alteration of the oil produces a slightly harder oil (semi-solid) at room temperature, called partially hydrogenated oil. This process can also change liquid oil into a completely solid state, which is known as hydrogenated oil. Both partially- and fully-hydrogenated oils are known as trans fats. Nearly a decade later after Normann patented this process, Proctor & Gamble bought the rights to Normann’s hydrogenation facility and marketed the hydrogenated oil commercially, known as Crisco®. (Note: Some oils, like coconut oil, are naturally solid at room temperature and should not be confused with the artificially-produced trans fats.)
Crisco® (and later, margarine) enjoyed much popularity for many years, especially after doctors and scientists began asserting the dangers associated with the consumption of saturated fats, especially those found in butter and lard. These common substitutes for oil are very high in saturated fat and cholesterol, however, Crisco®, as well as other hydrogenated oils, is produced from monounsaturated oils and contains no cholesterol. Proctor and Gamble capitalized on this, pushing Crisco® into millions of pantries, assisted by the giveaway of free cookbooks calling for Crisco® in every recipe. In addition to making the oil appear healthier, the hardening process also makes the oil shelf-stable for much longer than traditional oils, making it resistant to rancidity. Hydrogenated oils are also much less-expensive than traditional animal-based products like butter.
Manufacturers soon learned that using hydrogenated oils made their products appear healthier (because of reduced saturated fat and cholesterol), helped them control their production costs, and increased the shelf-life of products containing them, therefore increasing the manufacturer’s profit margins. This resulted in the universal use of hydrogenated oils in nearly all processed foods. In recent years, however, doctors, health officials and scientists have done a complete 180-degree turn with regard to their position on the safety of trans fats, now stating that the traditional animal fats like butter are far healthier in comparison to hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils. Why is this?
New Information Regarding the Safety of Trans Fats
As it turns out, the process of hydrogenation changes the chemical structure of the oil in a very fundamental way, making it appear, act and respond in the body more like a saturated fat. (Saturated fats are believed to be a large contributor to coronary heart disease.) New studies indicate that trans fats are even more dangerous than normal, saturated fats because the change in the chemical structure of the fat produces an artificial that the body does not recognize and cannot process effectively. According to one source, “One long-term study of more than 80,000 women showed that, compared to carbohydrates, every 5 percent increase in saturated fat consumption resulted in a 17 percent increase in the risk of coronary heart disease, while every 2 percent increase in trans fat resulted in a 93 percent increase” [emphasis added]. That is a remarkable increase in the prevalence of heart disease versus a lesser amount of saturated fat. Recent studies also indicate that consumption of trans fatty acids increases blood LDL-cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) levels, while simultaneously lowering blood HDL-cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol). This is a double-whammy to one’s circulatory health. Each of these factors alone increase the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), but together spell big trouble. The American Heart Association reports that CHD results in 500,000 deaths each year and is the leading cause of death in the United States.
According to the Mayo Clinic, trans fats also increase the amount of triglycerides in the blood, which contributes to plaque along the arterial walls, increase lipoproteins, another form of LDL-cholesterol, and causes inflammation as it appears that trans fats “damage the cells lining blood vessels“. In addition, consumption of high amounts of trans fats increase the prevalence of diabetes, immune disorders and obesity, although much more research is needed in order to make a formal, official statement linking cause and effect. Another article I discovered at a prostate cancer survivor website had this to add about trans fats:
“Brian Olshansky, M.D., a cardiologist and University of Iowa Health Care professor of internal medicine, ‘involves putting hydrogen atoms in the wrong place. It’s like making a plastic.’
‘The problem with trans fatty acids is that your body doesn’t know what to do with them,’ Olshansky said in a press release in 2003 which we carried on this page. ‘Trans fatty acids may help preserve food so that it tastes good, but your body can’t break them down and use them correctly,’ Olshansky said. ‘Normal fats are very supple and pliable, but the trans fatty acid is a stiff fat that can build up in the body and create havoc.’
Now, I do not assume that Dr. Olshansky is a chemist so the statement about trans fats being like “a plastic” should be taken with a grain of salt. However, what he says about the body’s inability to process trans fats is important to note.
FDA Changes Nutritional Labeling Requirements for Trans Fats
All of this bad press has led to the banning of trans fats in restaurants in at least three U.S. cities (Philadelphia, New York, and Tiburon, California) and the subsequent reformulation of hundreds of products by product manufacturers such as Kraft and Proctor & Gamble. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also began new product labeling requirements in 2006, requiring companies to disclose the amount of trans fats in their products. The new regulations require the amount of trans fat per serving to be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel, in a separate line directly below the saturated fat content. Trans fat content is to be expressed as grams per serving to the nearest 0.5-gram increment below 5 grams, and to the nearest gram increment if that amount is above 5 grams. If the amount of trans fat per serving is less than 0.5 gram, the content is to be expressed as 0. The important point here is that the product may still contain trans fats, as long as the amount is less than .5 gram per serving, and the label will read zero grams. (source *.pdf)
A Deceiving New Label
This new requirement is deceiving in many ways. First of all, the unaware consumer may be led to believe that the product they are consuming contains no trans fats. One sure way to tell is to read the label and look for “partially-hydrogenated” oil or “hydrogenated” oil. If the product contains either of these, it also contains the artificial “bad” fat, trans fat. Secondly, the labeling makes calculation of total dietary trans fat impossible. Many foods that contain hydrogenated oils are snack foods, and oftentimes the serving size is relatively small. Most people consume at least a serving of these types of foods every time they eat them. If the product contains .45 grams of trans fat per serving and lists zero grams on the label, and if one consumes two or three servings, they just consumed nearly a gram and a half without knowing it. Move on to the next product which has been deceptively labeled in this manner and it becomes impossible to know how much one has consumed. And just how much trans fat is okay? Doctors and health officials have stated that no amount of trans fat is safe, while the FDA asserts that one should not remove trans fats from one’s diet because poor health could develop! Early drafts of the regulations also called for an asterisk (*) in the column for recommended percentage daily allowance, with a warning to consume as little trans fats as possible. This requirement was later dropped.
How much trans fat is bad?
As the studies indicate, even a small amount of trans fat has an exponential effect on the rate of heart disease. According to one source, the National Academy of Science has concluded that “there is no safe level of trans fat consumption. There is no adequate level, recommended daily amount or tolerable upper limit for trans fats. This is because any incremental increase in trans fat intake increases the risk of coronary heart disease.” Because of this fact alone the current labeling requirements are insufficient and give consumers a false sense of security. Under these current regulations, I recommend that consumers read the product ingredients and avoid products containing partially hydrogenated oils. As you look, you will be shocked at how many products contain this dangerous fat.
This is one reason why the FDA issued a statement that one should not remove trans fats completely from one’s diet: “According to experts, eliminating trans fat completely from the diet would require such extraordinary dietary changes (e.g., elimination of foods, such as dairy products and meats that contain trans fatty acids) that eliminating trans fat could cause an inadequate intake of some nutrients and create health risks.” This is an astonishing statement. The FDA also states that the average daily intake of trans fats is about 5.8 grams. If one’s diet includes fast food, crackers, chips, desserts, candy, and margarine in higher than average amounts, this number can easily double. This short ten minute video focuses on trans fats. As it explains, trans fats are an artificial fat that the body simply does not know how to process. It ends up getting stored (one of the reasons it is believed to correlate with obesity) or it clogs up the system as is found in arterial plaque build-up.
The above quote really drives home the point that even the FDA recognizes that this artificial fat is found in so many prepared and processed foods that it is extremely difficult to avoid eating it altogether. If you eat out at all it is even more difficult, but this is changing due to customer demands for healthier cooking oils. Luckily, many restaurants are changing their product formulations to remove trans fats. In light of the aforementioned FDA standards of “zero grams of trans fat” per serving, one should be especially wary of ingesting incremental amounts of trans fats that bypass this requirement by shrinking the portion size. Keep in mind that the average consumer eats more than the suggested serving size.
Sampling of Trans Fat Content in Common Restaurant and Pantry Items
To illustrate the widespread use of trans fats even better, consider this list of common food items:
One McDonald’s® large fries contains 8 grams of trans fat
A McDonald’s® apple pie contains 4.5 grams of trans fat
Four Girl Scout® shortbread cookies contain 1.5 grams of trans fat
A large order of KFC® Popcorn Chicken contains 7 grams of trans fat (prior to being reformulated)
KFC’s® Chicken Pot Pie contains 14 grams of trans fat (prior to being reformulated)
A typical 3-piece KFC® Extra Crispy combo meal, with a drumstick, two thighs, potato wedges, and a biscuit contains 15 grams of trans fat (source of the above) (prior to being reformulated)
1 TB Stick Margarine contains 3 grams of trans fat
A 42.5 gram bag of potato chips contains 3 grams of trans fat
1 Fried Doughnut contains 5 grams of trans fat
A standard candy bar contains 3 grams of trans fat
One slice of pound cake contains 4.5 grams of trans fat (source)
One Pillsbury® crescent roll contains 1.5 grams of trans fat (source)
Ready-made frostings contain 1 gram of trans fat per 1 tablespoon (source)
Although some restaurants are making changes to reduce or eliminate trans fats, there is currently no requirement alerting the average American consumer of the dangers associated with the food they are eating in restaurants! Would you eat a box of fries that carried an image of the skull and cross bones on the packaging, or a black box warning against coronary heart disease like one sees on a carton of cigarettes? You can be an informed consumer, however, and ask your favorite restaurants if they use partially hydrogenated oils, margarine, or shortening in the foods they offer. Many restaurants have been forced to make the switch from trans fats because of negative customer reaction. This past summer, California became the first state to ban trans fats in all restaurants. That’s a step in the right direction.
Hopefully, the above information is enough to make you a more conscious shopper when it comes to the safe foods you eat and feed your family. It may be natural to disregard some of the new information regarding trans fats, after all, they told us the same things about butter many years ago and now they are telling us its good. Until more studies are performed and the results scrutinized by the medical community and health professionals, I always encourage consumers to err on the side of caution, especially when some of the data indicates such a higher prevalence of health problems associated with trans fat consumption. Remember that nutritional labels are misleading and confusing. Do not try to gauge your trans fat intake going by the label alone. Read the ingredients and scan for partially- or fully-hydrogenated oil. If either are present, the product contains trans fats, but was probably re-formulated by the manufacturer to get below the limit set by the FDA’s labeling guidelines. In this case, assume that the product has nearly .5 gram per serving.
For more information on fats, click here.
The Straight Dope on Trans Fats
ABC News Article on Trans Fats
The Fit Shack article on Trans Fats labeling
Medicine.net article on Trans Fats