Trans Fat: What the Food Industry Wants to Hide From You

October 5th, 2009

Trans FatIt’s fairly common knowledge that trans fat is unhealthy, but many people still don’t realize how unhealthy it actually is. Trans fat is still quite common, and as such, it’s important that you’re aware of the dangers that it presents and that you’re able to identify it on an ingredients list.

Unfortunately, the food industry has a lot of incentive to continue using trans fat. Because of the myth that saturated fat causes heart disease, trans fat provides a convenient way for food manufacturers to give their products the consistency of solid fat without having to list saturated fat on the nutrition label. Margarine is an excellent example. Furthermore, trans fat is less expensive, has a longer shelf life, is easier to bake with, and has a reduced need for refrigeration. As such, trans fat provides a lot of potential for reducing production costs and increasing profits. However, the one factor that’s not fully taken into account, which is also the most important factor, is your health.

What is Trans Fat?

The name given to trans fatty acids technically describes their molecular structure, and although trans fat does occur naturally, the term is generally used to represent the unnatural fat molecules that result from the food processing techniques used to give polyunsaturated oils the solid characteristics of saturated fat.

Trans fat is produced by a process called hydrogenation which is used to create products like margarine, shortening, and the oils that many types of fast food are fried in. During this process, polyunsaturated oils are mixed with metal particles, usually nickel oxide, and are subjected to hydrogen gas at high pressure and temperature. Emulsifiers and starch are added to the mixture to improve the consistency, and because the resulting product has an unpleasant smell, it is again introduced to high temperatures to be steam cleaned. In the case of products like margarine, the mixture is also bleached to remove the unnatural gray color, and artificial flavoring and coloring is used to make it more appealing.

In addition to the potentially dangerous additives that are typically used in association with the hydrogenation process, the resulting trans fatty acids are structurally different from all naturally occurring fats and are now commonly regarded as a serious health concern.

Trans Fat Originates from Unhealthy Oils

One of the significant concerns regarding trans fat has more to do with the oils that are hydrogenated than the trans fat itself. Most processed food manufacturers use the cheapest polyunsaturated oils available including soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and canola oil. Because of the unstable nature of polyunsaturated fat, these oils are likely to be rancid before the hydrogenation process even begins.

When exposed to heat, oxygen, and moisture, as is common in cooking or processing, polyunsaturated oils tend to produce free radicals which are ionized molecules that are highly reactive and can easily cause cellular damage. This damage can alter DNA function and promote cell mutation and cancer growth as well as a number of other diseases and conditions.

Free radical damage is most notably known for damaging artery walls and causing the build up of plaque and scar tissue that leads to atherosclerosis and heart disease. Ironically, the polyunsaturated oils that we’ve been told to use as a heart healthy alternative to saturated fat are actually much more likely to cause heart disease.

Why Trans Fat is Unhealthy

Despite the body’s amazing ability to recognize and eliminate toxins, it unfortunately doesn’t recognize trans fat as an unnatural substance and will use it for the repair and development of cell membranes. This is of critical importance because cell membranes have a significant influence on the health and function of the cell, and in turn, our overall health. Once incorporated into cell membranes, the altered structure of trans fat leads to cell malfunction, and in a large enough volume, can lead to disease. Trans fat can also block the important utilization of essential fatty acids and is associated with many conditions and diseases including cancer, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, liver dysfunction, obesity, diabetes, immune dysfunction, birth defects, impaired vision, sterility, and weak bones and tendons.

Hidden Sources of Trans Fat and How to Avoid It

Over the past decade, it has become more widely accepted that trans fat is unhealthy, and as a result, its presence is gradually diminishing. However, many foods still contain trans fat, and if you’d like to avoid the risks that it presents, you should know how to recognize it.

Fortunately, the FDA’s food labeling regulations have been updated to require that trans fat be listed on nutrition labels. However, a small loop hole exists in section 101.9 which states that “if the serving contains less than 0.5 grams [of trans fat], the content, when declared, shall be expressed as zero.” In combination with small serving sizes that are often unrealistic, manufacturers take advantage of this by making bold claims on the packaging of their products stating that they contain 0 grams of trans fat. Don’t mistake this to mean that the product contains no trans fat at all because this is rarely the case.

Any product that lists a “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oil as an ingredient contains trans fat, even if the labeling says 0 grams. In such a case, it’s in your best interest to assume the worst case scenario which would be that the product contains 0.49 grams of trans fat, and it’s also important to realize that this amount is per serving. This might sound trivial, and some food labels even state something about a “dietary insignificant amount of trans fat”, but if you eat processed food on a regular basis, the amount of trans fat that you consume can accumulate to a potentially dangerous level. Furthermore, most reputable nutrition experts agree that you shouldn’t have any trans fat at all. In fact, in Nourishing Traditions, which is an excellent cookbook and nutritional reference, Sally Fallon suggests that you avoid it like the plague! The choice is yours, but at least be aware of what you’re choosing.

Know Your Fats

Much of the information presented in this article is from Know Your Fats by Mary Enig PhD. This book is an excellent resource that dispels much of the popular misinformation about the health impact of various fats, particularly saturated fat.

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