Trans Fat Free and Healthy?
The war against trans fats has been an ongoing battle that reached a peak in recent years. In 2003 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided that trans fats should be listed on food labels. A year later, mounting scientific data led an FDA advisory committee to publicly state that in equal amounts, trans fats are more harmful than saturated fat. In addition to lowering HDL (good cholesterol) and raising LDL (bad cholesterol), trans fats have been tied to a number of other negative effects in our body. The increased (negative) media attention surrounding this nutritional bad guy led restaurants and fast food chains to re-think the products they have been selling. The widely publicized New York City health department ban on trans fats in restaurants upped the ante even further pushing the competition to step up to the plate.
How Low Should You Go?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans do not indicate a safe level of trans fat intake. Instead, they say we should minimize intake of trans fats. What are the public health implications of including trans fats on food labels?
“FDA estimates that 3 years after the effective date, January 2006, trans fat labeling would annually prevent from 600 to 1,200 heart attacks and save 250-500 lives. Based on this estimate, this rule will realize a cost savings of $900 million to $1.8 billion per year in medical costs, lost productivity, and pain and suffering.”¹
Steps to Minimize Trans Fats in Your Diet
If you do not live in NYC and therefore don’t know what is in your restaurant food, either ask the manager or choose foods that you know have little to no trans fats – minimally processed foods that are not fried and if sautéed, ask that they are not sautéed in margarine
Check the nutrition facts label (see below) for trans fat content which is listed right under saturated fat
Eliminate margarine from your diet. Opt for healthy oils, such as coconut oil or butter that contains no trans fats
Food label courtesy of the Center for Food Science and Applied Nutrition, FDA
Steps made by the FDA as well as various restaurants and other entities are commendable, however, it’s also important to step back and take a look at what these restaurants and food companies are using to replace trans fat. And, if a food is trans-free, does this mean it is healthy?
A variety of oils and fats are being used to replace hydrogenated oils (hydrogenated oils are the main source of trans fats in our diet). Manufacturers are working hard to identify and create other potential alternatives to hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. By using technology, food scientists are working to:
modify the chemical hydrogenation process to produce oils with very low
(less than 0.5 grams/serving) trans fat content,
use plant breeding and genetic engineering techniques to modify the fatty
acid composition of oil seeds,
use interesterified fats (fats that have been chemically modified making
them more solid for use in applications such as frying),
use fractionated oils (oils that have been physically separated with the different fractions used for various purposes)².
The best option is always food in its most natural form, because even though the other options listed about are better than consuming trans fats, there are potentially negative health effects associated with both interesterified fats and fractionated oils though these have not been studied to the degree of trans fats. The monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils such as safflower, sunflower and olive oil are better alternatives than oils with trans fats, but the best alternative is extra virgin coconut oil. Extra virgin coconut oil is among the healthiest, most versatile dietary oils in the world. It contains medium-chain fatty acids, such as lauric acid, which have a shorter chain length than most animal derived long-chain saturated fatty acids. Newer research supports the theory that saturated fats rich in medium-chain fatty acids, like those found in extra virgin coconut oil, are beneficial. In fact, consumption of coconut oil at recommended levels, along with a healthy diet and lifestyle, helps maintain already healthy levels of cholesterol.
Is Trans Fat Free Healthy?
Not necessarily. Just because a food is trans-fat free, it does not mean it is now healthy for you. French fries are French fries and pastries are still pastries. Though food companies and restaurants have taken great strides toward making food less unhealthy, foods of minimal nutritional value such as French fries, cookies and the like should be avoided or eaten in moderation. Instead, opt for minimally processed foods high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and probiotics.