Although the “trans” in the term “trans fats” refers to their bond configuration, it might as well stand for transformed!!! Here’s why…these fats are altered or “transformed” from a liquid to a solid for the sake of shelf life. But they come with some risks.
You may have heard on the news that in the last few years, state and local regulations have changed to reduce the amount of trans fats allowable in foods, including baked goods and restaurant servings. Although the restaurant industry has fought back to some degree, things are still moving in the direction towards eliminating trans fats. The public is becoming much more aware of the dangers of ingesting these fats and at the same time becoming more confused about them. Let’s clear things up for them (and you) in this short article.
What are Trans Fats?
First, let’s look at the three different types of fat: unsaturated (most vegetable oils), polyunsaturated (soft margarines, essential fatty acids like omega 3 and omega 6 from fish and nuts), or fully saturated (coconut oil, hard margarines). The term “saturated” refers to the type of chemical bond (single or double) between the carbon and hydrogen atoms as well as how many hydrogen atoms are attached to these bonds.
When it comes to the arrangements of bonds around a carbon atom, there is “cis” and “trans.” Trans- prefix comes from the Latin meaning "across". Cis- prefix also from the Latin meaning “on the same side.” The images below show a trans configuration on the left (the green “atoms” are across from each other…) and a Cis configuration on the right (the green “atoms” are on the same side as each other…).
How are Trans Fats Created?
Trans fats are made by adding hydrogen bubbles to oils. This causes the oils to become and remain solid at room temperature, making them more “user friendly” for the process of making crackers, cookies, doughnuts, and other foods that require long shelf life. This process of adding hydrogen to oils to turn them from a liquid into a solid is called “hydrogenation” and yields “partially hydrogenated oils” which are solid in consistency. However, a small amount of trans fat is found naturally, primarily in dairy products, some meat, and other animal-based foods.
Hydrogenation increases shelf life and flavor stability of foods containing trans fats. Most trans fats can be found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, snack foods, and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils.
What are the Consequences Associated with Trans Fat Intake?
Scientific evidence shows that consumption of saturated fat, trans fat, and dietary cholesterol raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than 12.5 million Americans have CHD, and more than 500,000 die each year from CHD or complications from CHD. That makes CHD one of the leading causes of death in the United States.
Although saturated fat is the main dietary culprit that raises LDL, trans fat and dietary cholesterol also contribute significantly when consumed in high concentrations.
The Food and Drug Administration has required that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol be listed on food labels since 1993. They added the requirement, in 2006, that trans fats be listed as well. Now you can look at the Nutrition Facts panel and know how much of all three–saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol–are in the foods you choose. Identifying the levels of these different types of fats gives you information you need to make good food choices that help reduce the risk of CHD. This information is of particular interest to people concerned about high blood cholesterol and heart disease.
If consumers follow recommendations, e.g. selecting lean meats, trimmed of all visible fat, choosing reduced or low-fat dairy products, and limiting the intake of baked foods such as cakes, pastries, pies, and biscuits, they will not only lower the amount of saturated fat, but also the amount of trans fats they consume. Not to mention their overall calories.
Let’s Cut the Fat and Get to the Truth:
Unfortunately, consumer groups and the media have made a huge issue about trans fats when they really may not be as bad as we are told. Yes, you did just read that… You’ve read this far to get to the whole truth, so here is some information on trans fats so you may be better informed:
As mentioned above, when vegetable shortening and margarine have undergone a process called "hydrogenation," unsaturated oils are converted to a more solid form of fat by “saturating the bonds with hydrogen atoms” which changes the molecular structure form a “cis” bond to a “trans” bond, hence the name of “trans fats.” Trans fats are found in all kinds of processed foods and are presently listed on the label as "partially hydrogenated fats or oils" (until the new law is fully implemented and the actual grams of trans fats will be disclosed on all food labels).
These transformed fats are called trans-fatty acids and are potentially more dangerous to our bodies than saturated fats.
Now here’s the important part: Ingested in small quantities, our bodies will burn trans fats off as energy and conserve the natural fatty acids for more important functions. However, if there is an over consumption of trans-fatty acids which exceeds our bodies capacity to break them down, disease begins to manifest because our body attempts to use these altered molecules for vital structures and functions (such as using them for new cell membrane or “phospholipid bilayer construction). It is highly recommended to limit consumption of trans fatty acids for this reason. Margarine, which is loaded with trans-fatty acids, should be used sparingly even though it is "lower in saturated fats." Estimated average intake of trans-fatty acids is about 12 grams per day in the U.S., of which 95% comes from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil products. The rest are from animal products, mainly beef and butter.
Although the process of hydrogenation leads to the formation of trans fats, there are other processes such as fractionation that can yield hydrogenated oil without the formation of a trans fat. Therefore, the old rule of thumb directing us to look for the word “hydrogenated” in a label to identify the presence of a trans fat, no longer stands. Luckily, new government regulation requiring manufacturers to list trans fats now in effect will do away with all the guess work, although it will cause some confusion when uninformed consumers see “hydrogenated oils” as part of the ingredients and do not see trans fats listed in the Nutrition Facts label.
I am all for listing the amounts and for full disclosure of what is in our foods. However, when it comes to limiting our choices, I believe that creates a problem. One of these problems is that many states are looking into banning or limiting the use of trans fats completely. New York and California are two that have already done so. This may not be a good thing, as one of the benefits of trans fats is that they maintain the shelf life and texture manufacturers (and consumers) want for certain products in much smaller amounts than needed when using saturated fats in their place. If trans fats are further “regulated,” manufacturers will take them out completely…and have no choice but to replace them with saturated fats.
Our favorite protein bars only had .46g of trans fats per serving and a total of 8g of fat. The manufacturers opted to do away with the trans fats to go along with the “trans free trend” and their product now has 14g to 16g of saturated fats. If more legislation is passed to ban or limit trans fats, the amount of saturated fats in our food supply will increase tremendously and will in no way better the cardiovascular health of our country, especially when consumers tend to have a much smaller trans fat intake than saturated fat intake.
Aren’t you glad you read this article and will be one of the few consumers knowing what to look for? Remember, when you see something is labeled as “trans fat free,” be sure to look at the amount of saturated fat it contains. The recommendation in saturated fat consumption is as follows: our diets should consist of no more than 30% total fat, and out of that 30% no more than 10% should come from saturated fats.
How do we translate this into “useful information?” Here it goes: If you are consuming 2000 calories per day, as stated above, it is recommended that no more than 30% of your daily caloric consumption come from fat. 30% of 2000 is 600, meaning that no more than 600 out of those 2000 calories should come from fat.
10% of 600 is 60, so no more than 60 calories of your entire day’s fat consumption should come from saturated fats. Being that a gram of fat has nine calories, you should have no more than 6.66666666g of saturated fat (60 divided by 9) per day.
Just so we get an idea of what this means, remember my favorite protein bar from the above paragraph? It used to only have 8g of total fat, less than one gram of saturated fat, and only .46g of trans fats. Now it contains 14g of total fat and 6 of those 14 are saturated fat. This means that I am now getting almost TWICE THE TOTAL FAT and SIX TIMES MORE SATURATED FAT….but zero trans?!?!?
Now, run to your fridge and pantry and see what the saturated fat of a “typical” serving of your favorite snack consists of…you may be surprised how the amounts of saturated fats have increased in the name of ….well…”health?”
It is back to the old adage “Moderation in all things.” This applies particularly when the types and quantities of fats are concerned. This is why in our Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist™ home study course we teach not to concentrate on “calories” but more so on what the calories are composed of: the amount of protein, the amount of carbohydrates, and the amount of fat, and how to determine the right amount for each person based on the individual and not a “one-size-fits-all, calories-in, calories-out” model.
© 2012 Lucho Crisalle, CEO, Exercise & Nutrition Works, Inc.
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Bibliography and Studies on Trans Fats
- Roan, Shari (28 January 2011). "Trans fats and saturated fats could contribute to depression". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
- Thomas LH, Jones PR, Winter JA, Smith H. Hydrogenated oils and fats: the presence of chemically-modified fatty acids in human adipose tissue. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1981; 34:877-86.
- Mozaffarian D, Katan MB, Ascherio A, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC. Trans fatty acids and cardiovascular disease. N Engl J Med. 2006 Apr 13;354(15):1601-13.
- Food and nutrition board, institute of medicine of the national academies (2005). Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). National Academies Press. p. 423.
- "Trans fat: Avoid this cholesterol double whammy". Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Retrieved 2007-12-10.
- Ascherio A, Hennekens CH, Buring JE, Master C, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC. Trans-fatty acids intake and risk of myocardial infarction. Circulation. 1994; 89:94-101.
- Katan MB, Zock PL, Mensink RP. Trans fatty acids and their effects on lipoproteins in humans. Annual Review of Nutrition. 1995; 15:473-93
- "Palm Oil Not A Healthy Substitute For Trans Fats, Study Finds". Science Daily Website: Science News. ScienceDaily LLC. 2009-05-11. Retrieved 2010-05-12.
- Kerkstra, Patrick; Stoiber, Julie (2007-02-09). "Ban gives Phila. a healthy lead in trans-fat fight". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 2010-12-30.
- Food Labeling: Trans Fatty Acids in Nutrition Labeling. Government Publishing Office.
- "FDA requires trans fatty acid labeling for foods and dietary supplements". Allbusiness.com. Retrieved 2011-07-14.
- Mozaffarian D, Pischon T, Hankinson SE, et al. Dietary intake of trans fatty acids and systemic inflammation in women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2004; 79:606-12.