The good, the okay and the very very bad.
We need fats to live and thrive. Some are much better than others and some are downright disastrous for health. The Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance has an excellent explanation of the different fats here. I'm going to focus on why trans fats are so dangerous.
Trans-Fatty Acids or Partially Hydrogenated Oils
Trans-fatty acids (TFAs), also called trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), are liquid vegetable oils processed into a solid form such as margarine or vegetable shortening. This is done by adding hydrogen, thus the name partially “hydrogenated” vegetable oil. Processed foods have a longer shelf life when they contain PHOs, making them desirable to food manufacturers. But this is bad news for us. Scientific evidence concludes that PHOs are wildly dangerous and contribute to a wide range of diseases.
The cardiovascular system has been the main focus of research, which shows PHOs destroy good cholesterol while dramatically increasing bad cholesterol, leading to a much higher risk of heart attack. Research also indicates that PHOs increase risk of systemic inflammation, cell dysfunction, irregular heartbeat, insulin resistance, Alzheimer’s, liver dysfunction, infertility, cancer, diabetes development, and stroke. In addition, hydrogenated oils cause the body to store fat around the abdomen, which can be an indicator of poor health.
As of June 2015, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that PHOs are not “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) and placed them on the list of foods that are, well, not safe to eat. Based on a thorough review of the scientific evidence, the U.S. FDA has determined that removing partially hydrogenated oils from processed foods could prevent thousands of deaths and heart attacks in the United States each year—and they are only talking about the cardiovascular danger of trans fats.
Given that these foods are now on the “bad” food list, the FDA has given food manufacturers three years to either reformulate their products without PHOs or try to petition the use of them in foods. Until that time, the FDA recommends that consumers check a food’s ingredient list to determine whether or not it contains PHOs. As I am writing this, it's the summer of 2018, so I looked to see if the FDA followed up. Here's their update from May 2018.
Common foods that may contain partially hydrogenated oils, or trans fats, include:
- Baked goods such as cakes, cookies, pies, crackers, and donuts
- Vegetable shortening and stick margarine
- Coffee creamer
- Pot pies
- Ready-to-use frosting
- Potato chips
- Microwave popcorn
- Ramen noodles and soup cups
- Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken, fried cheese sticks, fried anything)
- Refrigerated dough products such as cinnamon rolls and biscuits
Here’s something critical to note: foods currently labeled with zero grams of trans fats may legally still contain small amounts (less than one-half gram per serving). These small amounts can add up and contribute to health problems.
Suppose you usually start your day with coffee with creamer and a donut. For lunch you hit the drive-thru and order chicken nuggets and fries—and maybe a little apple pie for dessert. Someone in the office has a birthday and there are cupcakes with frosting. For dinner you have a frozen pizza, and later, while watching a movie, you eat some microwaved popcorn. See the problem? It is not the individual amount you have but the cumulative effect of trans fats on your health.
To summarize: Processed foods with a shelf life probably contain partially hydrogenated oils. These are going to cause damage to your health, as determined by a plethora of studies. Even the government is involved. Therefore, trans fats are to be avoided.
To make snacks that have healthy fats, check out both the sweet and savory recipes for Gently Roasted Nuts.