What is Trans Fat?

Part of the purpose of this blog is to help educate people about what they put into their

Crisco’s label boasts that it has “50% less Saturated fat than Butter,” but the fact is that shortening has partially-hydrogenated oil (trans fat), while natural butter does not.

mouths, and essentially, into their engines of energy (aka their bodies).  This post intends to clarify a bit about trans fat: what it is, why it’s harmful, what it look likes on an ingredient label, and what foods you would find them in.

Trans fat in its most basic definition is the addition of hydrogen to oil through a process called hydrogenation[1].  This creates a very stable substance that doesn’t spoil or break down, and it’s used to extend the shelf life of packaged food products.  Food manufacturers and bakers use ingredients with trans fat (i.e. shortening) because they produce foods with better baking qualities and enhanced flavors.[2]

The unfortunate part about trans fat is that the human body doesn’t recognize the difference between trans fat and saturated fat, and saturated fat is the healthy heart’s number one nemesis.  A diet high in saturated fat contributes to a variety of problems, including raising LDL levels (low-density lipoproteins, the “bad” cholesterol), and increasing the risk of stroke and heart disease.[3]  Trans fat, in addition to these risks, also decreases the levels of HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins), the “good” fat that provides essential amino acids to the body, and lowers the risk of heart disease.  Also, because trans fat contributes to elevated cholesterol, the risk of developing atherosclerosis increases.

Atherosclerosis is the hardening of artery walls due to buildup of blood waste products (fat, cholesterol, etc) called plaque. The accumulation of plaque makes arteries increasingly inflexible and narrow, and can contribute to strokes and heart attacks when blood is unable to pass through the narrowed chambers.

If you are a packaged food eater (and even if you think you’re not), you might be surprised to know where trans fat is hidden on the shelves.  It goes by the name of “partially-hydrogenated oil” and it can even exist in packages that say “0 trans fat.”  That’s because the FDA regulations allow for up to .5g of trans fat per serving for products to make the “0 trans fat” claim on their labels[4].  For that reason, it is absolutely critical for consumers to READ the ingredient labels of food products before buying it.  Below is a list of common food items that typically have partially-hydrogenated oil in the ingredients:

-Peanut butter
-Sweet treats (cookies, cakes, candy, doughnuts, icing)
-Packaged popcorn
-Crackers
-Vegetable shortening
-Fried foods
-Pie crusts, pizza dough, breads
-Pre-made cake and pancake mixes
-Snack foods
-Frozen dinners

Crisco vegetable shortening has both partially and fully hydrogenated palm oils in its ingredients, making it a source of saturated and trans fat.

And contrary to what you may think, if a product reads “fully” or “completely hydrogenated,” it actually does not contain any trans fat, although it is still has saturated fat.

Finally, I just want to emphasize again how important it is for consumers to be informed label-readers if they are going to buy packaged products. The best route in most cases is to buy whole, unpackaged foods, like fruits, nuts, veggies, bean varieties, and whole grains…then there’s nothing to worry about in the labels. But for people who do buy pre-packaged foods, you need to be your own health advocate and learn what your putting into your body, and how that affects you internally.

For consumers who don’t want to take extra time to read the labels, below is a list of a few companies I’ve found that avoid putting trans fat into some of their products and offer healthy, alternative & tasty foods to try.

Butter products: Smart Balance, Earth Balance, Land O’ Lakes (select varieties)
Snacks (cookies, crackers, Granola bars): Kashi, Newmans Own, Clif Bars, Nature’s Valley oat bars (i.e. Honey ‘n Oats)
Peanut Butter: Smuckers Natural, MaraNatha, Planters Natural, Skippys Natural, Smart Balance
Cake/cookie/brownie Mixes: Naturally Nora, King Arthur Flour (most mixes)

These represent just a small portion of the many health food companies & products out there, and I encourage you to find more as you shop.  But as always, the best meals are typically homemade anyway, so why not save money, put on your chef’s hat, and cook your way to healthier lifestyle? Everyone has a spark of creativity inside, and sometimes the kitchen is a wonderful place to feed that flame and make something tasty. I’d love to hear some of your stories of healthy food creations you’ve made in your kitchen.  Cheers!

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