Monday Medical: The skinny on trans fats
July 16, 2017
All it takes is a little chemistry — moving one hydrogen atom to the opposite side of a molecule — and you can change a liquid vegetable oil into a life-threatening food substance.
Welcome to the world of trans fats. These fats, often used in processed foods, such as cookies, crackers and margarine, have a bad rap for a good reason: They significantly increase the risk of heart disease.
"It's a simple little chemical reaction that can actually cause cardiovascular disease," said Laura Stout, registered dietitian nutritionist for Yampa Valley Medical Center. "Trans fats are very dangerous."
The Food and Drug Administration agrees and has banned trans fats starting in 2018. While many food manufacturers are already making the shift to healthier oils, trans fats are still currently in foods, and no amount of trans fats is OK to consume.
"Any level is considered dangerous," Stout said.
The origination of trans fats
Trans fats were created more than a century ago, when a German scientist turned liquid vegetable oil into a solid form. His creation turned out to be a less expensive, longer-lasting substitute for butter and lard. Decades later, these trans fats found their way into a range of processed foods.
But concerns about trans fats began to rise. In 2004, Denmark banned trans fats. A few years later, New York City did the same. In the years following the bans, researchers found significant decreases in both places in the rate of cardiovascular deaths.
"Because of those kinds of studies, the FDA has gone back to manufacturers and said to get rid of trans fats by next year," Stout said.
How to avoid trans fats
For the next six months, trans fats may still be found in processed foods, from baked goods and French fries, to creamers and refrigerated doughs.
"You might see a premade dough and think, 'I'm doing this really healthy thing by making my own pizza,' but check the ingredient list — that's where you'll most likely see trans fats," Stout said.
To avoid trans fats, stay away from anything that contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or calls out trans fat content in the nutrition facts label.
There's one complication: Food manufacturers don't have to label a food as containing trans fats if a serving has less than 0.5 grams. This means there might be zero grams on the nutrition facts label, but in reality, there are trans fats in the food. The best bet is to read the ingredient list, which has to show partially hydrogenated oil if trans fats are present.
"It's a really tricky thing as a consumer to be able to decipher this," Stout said.
Fats and your diet
In addition to avoiding trans fats, Stout recommends getting fats in their plant form when possible: Consider throwing some avocado slices on your salad, having a few olives as a snack or adding nuts and seeds to a smoothie.
"When these fats come with their fiber, it feeds the gut better and allows for a healthier gut microbiome," Stout said.
When cooking at high temperatures, try coconut or grapeseed oils, because they have a higher smoke point. Olive oil and other vegetable oils are also good, but have a lower smoke point.
Once the trans fat ban goes into place, consumers can rest a little easier.
"You'll be able to enjoy your foods more freely," Stout said. "Naturally occurring fats, such as coconut or palm oils, are much better choices for food manufacturers and you're already seeing these as replacements for partially hydrogenated oils."
But until then, read those labels and keep this dangerous substance out of your diet.