Caroline J. Cederquist, M.D. is a board certified Family Physician and a board certified Bariatric Physician (the medical specialty of weight management). She specializes in lifetime weight management and is the author of Helping Your Overweight Child – A Family Guide. More information about Dr Cederquist and her weight management plan is available by visiting www.DietToYourDoor.com.
What if you suddenly discovered that a dangerous, life-threatening substance had made its way into nearly half the foods in your supermarket?
It’s not grocery terrorism or product tampering. It’s trans fat, and the FDA estimates that 2,500 to 5,600 deaths per year could be prevented if consumers were more informed about it. The Institute of Medicine in 2001 issued an unequivocal statement that trans fats “should not be eaten at all” and by 2006 they will be listed separately on Nutrition Facts labels. The long-time rascal of dietary fat has been saturated fat, They’re considered the “bad fats” because they can raise LDL cholesterol levels, which increases risk for coronary artery disease.
However they’ve got nothing on trans fats. Also referred to as “trans fatty acids,” trans fats occur naturally only in tiny amounts. Most people are getting trans fats made artificially, through the commercial process of hydrogenation, and consuming them in mass quantities.
Adding hydrogen to unsaturated vegetable oils will make them solid at room temperature. Think of that gleaming white goop that comes in a can. This is also how margarine is made from liquid vegetable oils.
Though unsaturated fats are generally less harmful—though not less fattening—than saturated fats, the process of hydrogenation alters them at the molecular level and turns them into trans fats, making them assume many of the characteristics of saturated fats.
Like saturated fats, these trans fats in commercial food products will offer the benefit of a longer shelf life.
But they also come with the downside, because like saturated fats, trans fats raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol that accumulates in arteries. The FDA estimated that informing consumers about trans fat content on food labels could prevent 7,600 to 17,000 cases of coronary heart disease each year.
A little bit of trans fat once or twice probably wouldn’t be harmful. It’s the cumulative effect over time that does the damage. Trans fats appear in more than 40 percent of standard grocery items! Many processed foods contain trans fats.
Foods like french fries, fried chicken, fish sticks or virtually any batter-dipped and fried foods will contain trans fats because they are fried in hydrogenated fat.
Trans fats are also found in almost all margarines. They’re also in most pastries and doughnuts. Chips, cookies and microwave popcorn are about the biggest carriers of trans fats. In fact, most commercial snack foods are guaranteed to be trans fat carriers. It just makes sense; food producers are looking to get that longer shelf life and satisfy customers’ flavor expectations by keeping their products fresher longer.
As dangerous as they are, trans fats are not listed on food labels as such. So to tell if a product has trans fat in it, look for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredient list. The higher in the ingredient list that hydrogenated oils are listed, the more trans fats there are in the product.