Trans-fatty acids are one of four main types of fats found in food. Other fats found in food include monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and saturated fat. Trans-fatty acids, also commonly known as trans fats, are commonly found in processed foods, fast food, foods that have been fried, and commercial baked goods. While most trans fats are created through a process known as partial hydrogenation, there are some foods that naturally have small amounts of trans-fatty acids in them, including certain milk products and meats.
Trans fats have been a staple product in food for many years, but it was not until the 1990s that it was determined that they could be harmful. It is now believed that trans fats actually increase the risk of heart disease by raising the levels of bad cholesterol in the body while lowering the levels of good cholesterol. Ironically, products with trans-fatty acids, such as margarine and shortening, were heavily touted to be healthier alternatives to foods with high saturated fat content such as butter, lard or beef tallow. Now many believe that foods with trans-fatty acids may actually be less healthy than the foods they were originally designed to replace.
Trans-fatty acids are formed through a process known as partial hydrogenation that adds hydrogen to an oil. When hydrogen is added to oil, it creates a thick and dense product. Food manufacturers use trans fats because they are less expensive than lard, tallow or butter and last longer than other fats and oils. Trans-fatty acids are also commonly used because they increase the shelf life of food and make many foods taste better.
Consumers who are interested in reducing the level of trans-fatty acids from their diets can do a few key things. The first is to read the nutrition labels on food packaging. Many nations now require the amount of trans fats to be listed on the nutrition label. Labels may not tell the whole truth, however, as some nations allow foods with a small amount of trans fats to be able to legally claim that it has zero trans fats per serving.
A good rule of thumb is to check for the terms “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” on the ingredient list. Any food that has an ingredient that has been partially hydrogenated does contain trans-fatty acids, even if the nutrition label claims the food has zero trans fats per serving. The term hydrogenated does not always mean that a food contains trans-fatty acids; however the terms hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated may be used interchangeably.
Another key action item in reducing the intake of trans fats is to ask whether a restaurant uses trans fats in its foods. Many restaurants use trans fats when frying, deep frying or baking foods. Foods that commonly contain trans fats include fried foods such as fried chicken and french fries and baked goods such as pastries, pies, biscuits, breads, cookies and pizza dough.