The Dish On Trans Fats

Dish of Cookies   by Maren Sederquist, MES, CSCS, PES, CPT

The FDA has ordered food manufacturers to list Trans Fat on the Nutrition Facts panel on food and some dietary supplement labels by January 1, 2006. Some manufacturers have already begun to do so. You, as a consumer will benefit by having more information to make healthier food choices, which could lower your consumption of trans fat as part of a heart-healthy diet.

About Trans Fat

There are four kinds of fats: monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat are the "good" fats. It is generally accepted that consumption of saturated fat should be kept low, especially for adults. Trans fat (which means trans fatty acids) is the worst kind of fat, far worse than saturated fat.

Trans fats, or trans fatty acids, are created when cooking oils are heated to make an oil more solid; provide longer shelf-life in baked products; provide longer fry-life for cooking oils, and provide a certain kind of texture or "mouth feel." You can tell if a food has trans fats by reading the label and looking for “shortening,” “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “hydrogenated vegetable oil” on the label. You can also assume French fries are made with partially hydrogenated oils if its not advertised that they’re not. The higher the partially hydrogenated oil is on the list of ingredients, the more there is in the product. Until now, that’s the only way you could guess how much trans fat was in a product.

Where are trans fats found?

Partially hydrogenated oils are commonly found in processed foods and commercially baked products such as cookies, cakes, crackers, and some breads and margarines. They are also used as cooking oils for frying in restaurants. French fries and other deep fried foods can contain up to as much as 50% trans fats!

Why are trans fats bad?

Scientific reports have confirmed the relationship between trans fat and an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Trans fats make the arteries more rigid; cause major clogging of arteries; cause insulin resistance; cause or contribute to type 2 diabetes; and cause or contribute to other serious health problems. Metabolic studies have shown that trans fats have adverse effects on blood lipid levels by increasing LDL ("bad") cholesterol while decreasing HDL ("good") cholesterol. This combined effect on the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol is double that of saturated fatty acids, since saturated fats only raise LDLs and don’t lower HDLs.

Top epidemiologists at Harvard University have concluded: "By our most conservative estimate, replacement of partially hydrogenated fat in the U.S. diet with natural unhydrogenated vegetable oils would prevent approximately 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year, and epidemiologic evidence suggests this number is closer to 100,000 premature deaths annually."

What else is being done about trans fat?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s ("CSPI"), efforts resulted in the enactment of the law in 1990 which requires Nutrition Facts labels on packaged products sold in the United States. In 2004, CSPI filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban partially hydrogenated oils from our food supply, and a second petition to require restaurants to inform customers if they use partially hydrogenated oils, before any such ban takes effect.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) has asked City restaurateurs and food suppliers to voluntarily eliminate artificial trans fat from their kitchens.

Ban Trans Fats is a California non-profit that among other things started Project Tiburon, which convinced the owners of all 18 restaurants in Tiburon to use trans fat-free cooking oil for frying.

What can you do?

  • Read labels and limit your purchase of foods with trans fat!
  • Reduce your consumption of fried foods from restaurants. Cholesterol-free does not necessarily mean trans fat-free, and there are no labeling regulations for fast food restaurants.
  • Ask restaurants if they use trans fat free oils in their cooking.
  • Shop at health conscious markets like Whole Foods, where they don’t sell any products containing partially hydrogenated oils.
  • When you cook at home, choose:
  1. Non-stick cooking sprays when possible.
  2. Monounsaturated olive, canola or peanut oils.
  3. Polyunsaturated safflower, corn, sunflower, sesame or soybean oils.
  4. Trans fat-free margarines


U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a great chart of fats & tips to help reduce them in your diet.

Harvard School of Public Health report.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest ("CSPI").

CSPI’s website campaign against partially hydrogenated oils.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). A California non-profit corporation with the goal of reduction and elimination of partially hydrogenated oils from all food products.



Return to Articles Index