What Are Trans Fats?

What Are Trans Fats?

In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a regulation requiring manufacturers to list trans fats on nutrition labels. Many cities and counties went on to ban them, and some food manufacturers even began to reformulate their products so they no longer contained trans fats. We hear a lot about trans fats and how bad they are, but if you’re still scratching your head and wondering what all the fuss is about, you’re one of many.

There are four kinds of fat: monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats are the so-called “good” fats, which can be found naturally in foods like nuts, avocadoes, and vegetable oils. Saturated fats are found primarily in animal products but also occur naturally in coconuts oil and milk as well as palm kernel oil and cocoa butter. It is recommended that people, especially adults, keep consumption of saturated fat low to minimize its artery-clogging effects. Trans fans are regarded as the unhealthiest of all fats.

Trans fats are formed by partial hydrogenation, which partially saturates an unsaturated fat, making it more solid. This increases shelf-life and improves texture, making it a no-brainer addition to commercial baked goods like cookies and cake. Some restaurants may use trans fats as cooking oils—aka “liquid shortening.”

Though a few naturally occurring trans fats do exist, the ones generated through partial hydrogenation are the ones health experts are so concerned about. The reason trans fats are so bad for you is that they raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and lower levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which ups the risk of coronary heart disease by contributing to the hardening of arteries. Studies have also investigated potential associations between trans fats and Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Pretty scary, right?

What to look for on labels: If you see “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening” on the label, chances are that product contains trans fats, even if it claims not to contain any.