There’s a long list of dietary dangers you should avoid as you navigate up and down the grocery aisles. That list gets longer every day, though, and it’s hard enough keeping track of the “what” to stop and worry about the “why.” But even though we might not have all the facts about high fructose corn syrup, MSG or propyl gallate, we know enough to stay away. And, sure, we might slip every now and then, but for the most part we try to minimize the bad stuff as we follow our checklist of healthy food tips as closely as possible.
Unfortunately, that’s not always enough, and there are few substances that illustrate the point better than trans fat. Consumers who use organic living principles to guide their shopping trips would probably be surprised to learn that “zero trans fats” on a label doesn’t tell the whole story. That can turn out to be a big deal, because trans fat has some nasty health consequences – everything from cholesterol and heart problems to diabetes and even brain diseases can be traced to excess trans fats in the diet.
What is trans fat? Where does it come from? Just how does it affect our health, and why is it in our food if it’s so bad? Before your next trip to the store, take a look at these facts about trans fats to figure out the answers you’ll need.
7 Facts That Organic Living Advocates Must Know About Trans Fats
1. “Zero” isn’t always “zero.” When does nothing really equal something? Don’t worry: we’re not wading into an esoteric math problem here. But nutritional labeling for trans fats often doesn’t add up.
“Some items will have trans fats, but the label might not reflect this,” says Catherine Basu, a personal trainer certified by the American Council on Exercise and founder/owner of Fit Armadillo in Houston, Texas. “In the U.S., foods with less than 0.5 grams of fat can be labeled as having 0 grams of fat.” Basu warns that you’ll have to pay extra attention to the ingredient list to make sure that your food is really free of trans fats – look for “partially hydrogenated oil” or “shortening” to see if the manufacturer is sneaking trans fats in.
2. Your trans fat limit is low. Certified personal trainer and nutritional consultant Justin Isaacs clues organic living fans in as to why the tricky labeling issue is extra important. “The maximum amount of trans fats eaten each day should be no more than 2 grams,” says Isaacs.
This means trans fat content that is just below the threshold for labeling can add up quickly. Say, for example, you’ve got a favorite snack that contains 0.4 grams of trans fat per serving. The label tells you you’re eating no trans fat, but if you manage to eat five servings at a party or while you watch a movie at home you’re already at your daily limit.
3. It’s not hard to find foods with trans fats. Trans fats are in so many different kinds of snacks and prepared meals that it’s impossible to come up with an exhaustive list. But we can give you some of the most common culprits.
“Most of the trans fat that causes health risks comes from the processed liquid vegetable oil that we use in processed foods,” says Certified Natural Health Professional Indhira Santana. That’s how trans fats end up in just about any snack foods you can name, including potato chips, cookies and crackers. One of Santana’s rules of thumb for sniffing out trans fats: if a food item is shelf-stable for more than a week or so, it’s a bad sign. Manufacturers turn to trans fats to prolong the shelf life of the food, so watch out for items that stay fresh a little too long.
Jackie Keller, Founding Director of Los Angeles-based healthy food company NutriFit and a board-certified health and wellness coach who has counted Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon and Jake Gyllenhaal among her clients, also lists margarine, shortening, Crisco, Bisquick, fried ramen noodles and some ice creams as being full of trans fats. She also points out high levels in fast foods – “French fries in particular, but trans fats can also be found in fried chicken and in hamburger patties.”
Dr. Michael Wald points specifically to frozen meals as the worst offenders. “Frozen dinners and desserts, such as frozen potpies, pizzas, fish sticks and pie crusts, typically contain roughly 5 to 15 grams of trans fat,” says Dr. Wald, a certified dietitian/nutritionist and the director of nutritional services at Integrated Medicine of Mount Kisco in Westchester, New York. These foods are also especially tempting to shoppers hoping for a convenient alternative to extensive meal prep.
4. There are natural trans fat sources… Organic living proponents should be aware that just because you’re avoiding greasy snacks doesn’t mean you’re not consuming trans fats. Trans fats are naturally found in full-fat meat and dairy products.
“Dairy products contain two trans fats – vaccenic and rumenic acid,” says David Hodges, a nutritionist and naturopath at Auckland Natural Health in New Zealand. “These fats may assist weight loss and have no known harmful effects.” Hodges points to these natural trans fats as the “good” variety.
5. …And not-so-natural trans fat sources. Of course, there’s got to be a “bad” to balance out the helpful stuff, and that would be the kind of trans fat that comes out of a laboratory, mad-science style.
“Trans fats are unsaturated fats fortified with hydrogen – that’s why they’re often listed as ‘partially hydrogenated’ or ‘hydrogenated’ fats on labels,” says Dr. Wald. “This chemical process transforms liquid, unsaturated fat into a solid fat at room temperature, creating a structure our bodies cannot decipher.” Dr. Wald points out that trans fats were widely regarded as healthy in the early 20th century – they were thought to be a good alternative to foods with saturated fatty acids, like butter. Whoops.
What is trans fat still doing in our supermarkets, now that we know better? Registered dietitian Kate Myerson doesn’t mince words: “We only started adding trans fats to foods to extend the shelf life of packaged goods. Why? So companies can make more money because their product is on the shelf longer.”
6. Trans fats are bad news at the cellular level. So what is trans fat doing to our bodies? To figure it out, researchers have had to look at the basic structure of trans fats, and they’ve found that trans fats disrupt the integrity of the human body’s building blocks.
Susan Barendregt, a board certified Holistic Nutrition specialist and a director of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals, points out that the process of hydrogenation gives a trans fat an unusual structure. “It looks an awful lot like a real saturated fat, which our bodies need,” says Barendregt. “When the body takes in trans fats, it doesn’t differentiate between them and saturated fats. The trans fats are used to make cell membranes, but when they’re incorporated into these structures they can’t do the same work that ‘real’ fats do. The cells get sick and suffer.”
7. Sick cells make for suffering people. Structural defects in your cell membranes are microscopic, sure, but the big picture effects of this quest to prevent food waste the not-so-old-fashioned way are no joke. The health consequences of trans fats should concern any fan of organic living.
San Francisco Bay-area nutritional therapy practitioner Sara Russell notes that a compromised cell membrane won’t help regulate chemical levels in the body. “When calcium and insulin can’t properly make their way in and out of cells, it leads to problems like osteoporosis, cataracts, bone spurs and diabetes,” says Russell. She warns that trans fats are also connected to infertility, depression, hormonal imbalances, heart problems, kidney stones and gallstones.
What does trans fat do when it enters your blood stream? Well, like any fat, trans fats affect your cholesterol levels. But trans fats cause a special sort of damage, according to Michael C. Hoaglin, Dr. Mehmet Oz’s former clinical director and the president of The Smartphone Physical. “Not only do trans fats raise the bad (LDL) cholesterol – they also block the good (HDL) cholesterol.”
Whacked out cholesterol levels could even effect your mental health. “Increased cholesterol levels in the blood contribute to the development of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, one of the key indicators of Alzheimer’s,” says registered dietitian Susan Levin, the director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Levin says that makes trans fats a big threat to proper brain functioning.
We’d say that’s a pretty steep price to pay for the corporate drive to prevent food waste and increase revenue.
Share this article if you’d like to educate your friends and family about trans fats, and comment below if you’ve cut trans fats out of your life and have (or have not) noticed a significant difference in your overall health.