Recently, trans fats have risen to the forefront of the nutrition world. It is not uncommon on a regular visit to the grocery store to see a wide range of products advertising themselves as being “trans fat free”. This is helpful information for the regular consumer to help avoid over consumption of trans fats, but what are trans fats, why are they harmful and how does one identify trans fats “hidden” in non-labeled foods? This article aims to help the average consumer understand more about trans fats and identify sources from everyday consumables.
What are trans fats and why are they bad?
The technical term for fats is fatty acids. Fatty acids are one of three varieties: unsaturated (most vegetable oils), polyunsaturated (soft margarines, essential fatty acids like omega 3 and omega 6 from fish and nuts) or fully saturated (coconut oil, lard, hard margarines). The term “saturated” refers to the type of chemical bonds (single or double) between the carbon and hydrogen atoms. Most fatty acids in their natural state are in their “cis form” that is, all the hydrogen atoms bonded to the individual carbons atoms are on one side of the fatty acid molecule – on the “cis” side.
Unsaturated oils are not as useful to be made into finished food products since they are prone to “oxidation” and can go rancid – destroying the taste and texture of the product. So to avoid this spontaneous oxidation, the industry practice is to “hydrogenate” the oil. This then creates what is known as a “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” (polyunsaturated fatty acid) that is more stable and less likely to become rancid. Hydrogenation may help increase the quality of the finished food product, however it often involves the formation of trans fats – where the hydrogen is bonded to the carbon on the opposite side of the fatty acid molecule (“trans” side). A trans fatty acid has a different structure than a regular cis fatty acid.
Studies have shown a strong connection between trans fat consumption and the development of cardiovascular disease like arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart disease. Evidence also seems to indicate that trans fats may be even more harmful than regular saturated fats like coconut oil, animal fats and lard. Therefore it is very important to be able to avoid consuming high concentrations of trans fats.
How To Spot “Hidden” Trans Fats
A good rule of thumb is to read the ingredients list on the side of the product packaging and look for the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil”. Any product containing this ingredient has a higher probability of containing trans fats. It is surprising the number of products that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and the consumer must be vigilant to avoid consuming too many of these foods. Examples of products are: almost all baked goods, foods with breading (chicken breasts, snacks etc.), fried foods, margarines/spreads and even cereals (even “low fat” granola).
In conclusion, it is hoped that this short article provided some basic knowledge on the importance of avoiding trans fats. An informed consumer will be able to make sensible and healthy choices and avoid potentially harmful nutrition sources.
David Petersen is a Personal Trainer/Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and the owner and founder of B.O.S.S. Fitness Inc. based in Oldsmar, Florida. More articles and information can be found at [http://www.bossfitness.com]
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