By now you’ve heard that trans fatty acids are bad for you. But you may be wondering what they are and why manufacturers keep using them in foods.
Trans fats are made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil — a process called hydrogenation, or partial hydrogenation. The result is that the fat stays solid at high temperatures and thus lengthens the shelf life of foods. Unfortunately, it may also shorten the “shelf life” of those who eat them.
The only controversy is whether trans fatty acids are even worse than artery-clogging saturated fat, as some experts believe. According to other health authorities, they are as bad as saturated fat but no worse.
However, scientists at Wake Forest University recently reported that diets rich in trans fats may cause a redistribution of fat tissue into the abdomen (the worst place to store fat for both health and appearance) and lead to a higher body weight, even when total calories are the same. The bottom line: To the degree you reduce your intake of saturated fat and trans fatty acids, you reduce your risk of a heart attack and other illnesses. In its new dietary guidelines, the American Heart Association now recommends cutting saturated fat to less than 7 percent of calories and trans fats to less than 1 percent of total calories in your diet.
Realistically, though, most people are not going to calculate the saturated fat and trans fats in their diet each day. So what can you do to protect yourself and your family? See below.
1. Reduce your intake of foods high in trans fats. These include most fried foods and many commercially prepared cookies, cakes, crackers and snack foods. If the label says “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated,” avoid it. In general, steer clear of foods that contain more than 3 grams of trans fats or saturated fats per serving.
2. Cut your consumption of foods high in saturated fats. These are found in meat and dairy products as well as some tropical oils, such as palm oil and coconut oil. Most people eat four times as much saturated fat as trans fats, so there is even more room for improvement here.
3. Ask food manufacturers to stop using trans fats in their foods. Four years ago, for example, Dr. Kenneth Cooper and I advised Pepsi-Co to remove the trans fats from its Frito-Lay products, and the company spent tens of millions of dollars doing so. Others can follow that example.
4. Support efforts to require restaurants to disclose the amount of trans fats and saturated fats in the foods they serve. Food manufacturers are required to do so, but not restaurants, even though more than one-third of calories are consumed outside the home.
5. Instead of butter, try margarines that are low in both trans fats and saturated fat. Some brands, especially those that come in sticks, are low in trans fats but high in saturated fat. Others in tubs are free of trans fats and low in saturated fat. Check the labels.
6. When cooking at home, use oils that are low in trans fats and saturated fat, such as olive oil and canola oil, which have the added advantage of being high in the protective omega-3 fatty acids. All fats are dense in calories, so use even “good fats” sparingly.