Monday, October 24, 2011

Food That Kills: Trans Fats

Everyone has heard that trans fats aren't good for you. But do you know what a trans fat is? Or better yet, why it's so bad for you? I have had this conversation with my family and friends and many don't have any idea. I was shocked to find out how many common foods still contain trans fats, several of which I was feeding me son. I bet you will be as shocked as I was to discover how prevalent trans fats are in our diet, even when our best intentions are to be without them. I learned my lesson, ALWAYS LOOK AT THE INGREDIENTS LIST.

What exactly is a trans fat?

A trans fats is formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats like shortening and margarine. This process is called hydrogenation. It occurs when a hydrogen is added to vegetable oil. The purpose of doing this is to increase shelf life and stabilize flavor in foods that contain this fat (FDA, 2011). Companies like to use trans fats because they are inexpensive to produce, easy to use and last a long time. Fast food companies use oils with trans fats because they don't have to change their frying oil as frequently (American Heart Association, 2011).

Why are trans fats bad for you?

Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels while also lowering your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats also increases your risk of developing heart disease, stroke and developing type 2 diabetes (American Heart Association, 2011).

Some trace amounts of trans fats can occur naturally in some foods such as meat and dairy products. However, research is not clear whether naturally occurring trans fats have the same bad effect as trans fats that have been manufactured (American Heart Association, 2011). 

How do I know which products contain trans fats?

In the last several years the FDA has made it a requirement to list trans fats on labels. New York even went as far as banning it completely from all restaurants in 2006 (UMMC, 2010). However, as part of the new labeling requirements the FDA only requires that manufactures list trans fats on nutritional labels if they contain .50 grams or less per serving. There are two main problems with this exception; the first is that people often consume more than one serving size per sitting and secondly, the manufactures that do utilize this exception are often the ones that advertise in bold letters across the front of the package "0 trans fats per serving". Watch out for those bold labels because they give you false security in their nutritional content. They only way to know for sure if the product contains trans fats is to look in ingredient list for "partially hydrogenated". If you see that you know it contains trans fats. 

Trans fats are commonly found in processed foods made of "partially hydrogenated" vegetable oils. Foods include shortenings, some margarine, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried food and baking good (FDA, 2011). 

Looking through my cupboards I found that my Ritz crackers, Saltine crackers, Quaker Oats granola bars, frozen pie crust, Chex Mix Muddy Buddies, Quaker Oats ranch flavored rice cakes, and chicken bullion cubes all had trans fats in the ingredients list, though none of them were listed on the nutritional label. 

Other common products that contain trans fats include Girl Scout Cookies, many breakfast cereals including Fruity Pebbles (Post), Cocoa Pebbles (Post), Basic 4 (General Mills), Rice Krispies Treats Cereal (Kellogg's), Froot Loops (Kellogg's), Oreo O's (Post), Corn Pops (Kellogg's), Honey Smacks (Kellogg's), Smorz (Kellogg's), Eggo Cereal Maple Syrup (Kellogg's), Mini-Swirlz Cinnamon Bun (Kellogg's), Waffle Crisp (Post), Barnum's Animal Crackers (by Nabisco), Stauffer’s Original Animal Crackers, fortune cookies and microwave popcorn (Calorie Counter, 2011). They can also be found in virtually every frosting and refrigerated bakery good you buy.

How much trans can I have in a day?

The American Heart Association (2011) recommends a diet containing less than 1% of your daily calories from trans fats. This means if you consume 2,000 calories a day, only 20 of those calories should be from trans fats. That is the equivalent of about 2 grams per day. Given that trans fats occur naturally in meats and dairy products, there is no room to consume manufactured trans fats under these health guidelines. 

Are trans fats especially bad for kids?

As you can see it is very easy to get more than the recommended amount of trans fats per day. It is even easier for children because most of the foods kids traditionally love are packed with them. The University of Maryland (2011) has shown that kids as young as 8, 9 and 10 already have high cholesterol and blood fats that clog arteries.  Children that start out as young as 3 and 4 eating fast food food, pop tarts, fish sticks, margarine, cake, candy, cookies and microwave popcorn more likely to get heart disease than kids who grew up without manufactured trans fats in their diet.

Remember it is your responsibility as a parent to protect your children from harmful things. They are going to want to eat the processed food containing trans fats because it also has the most salt and sugar. I am certainly not suggesting that you never indulge or give your kids junk food, that would be unrealistic. What I am proposing is to be aware of which items have trans fats so you can limit the amount your family consumes in general.

If you want to take a look at the worst fast food items containing trans fats check this out


University Of Maryland Medical Center


American Heat Association

A Calorie Counter

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