In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially declared that trans fats are no longer Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). In 2018, they were banned as an ingredient in food, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Despite this, there are still trans fats lurking in some of your favorite foods.
Video of the Day
The following popular items are common culprits of hidden trans fats. If you're looking to avoid trans fats, pay extra attention to these foods.
1. Fast Food
It's no secret that fast-food restaurants rely on oil to yield crispy textures. This is what gives fast food, such as french fries and fried chicken, its crunch and makes it greasy to the touch.
Trans fats are often found in fast foods that are fried and battered, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The solid oils used in many fast-food restaurants for frying contain trans fats.
These oils, though they contain trans fats, are more affordable and long-lasting. This explains why they're a common staple for quick-service restaurants.
Some restaurants may even reuse these oils in the deep fryer throughout the day. Thermally abused frying oils, which have been reheated and reused, are associated with health risks like breast cancer in animal studies, according to April 2019 research in Cancer Prevention Research.
2. Microwave Popcorn
Your favorite movie snack may be a culprit of hidden trans fats.
"Partially hydrogenated oil" is another term for trans fat. Some trans fats are found naturally in animal products, but they can also be made artificially through an industrial process called hydrogenation. This is when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetables to make them more solid, according to the American Heart Association. Some companies use trans fats because they are inexpensive, easy to produce and long-lasting.
Trans fats are a popular addition to boxed foods like microwave popcorn as they increase shelf life. Because partially hydrogenated oil has a high melting point, it can remain solid and intact until microwaved, deeming it a desirable preservative for the brand but not for your health.
3. Baked Goods
When looking at lists of foods that contain trans fats, baked goods are always at the top. These foods include:
- Cinnamon rolls
Baked goods are often made with shortening, an ingredient made of solid fat. This gives baked goods its flakey, crumbly texture. Shortening is essentially a source of pure trans fats as it is made entirely of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Some manufacturers have eliminated trans fats in their shortening, but even foods claiming to be free of trans fats can still contain small amounts of them. Manufacturers may claim that a food is free of trans fats if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams, per the FDA.
4. Coffee Creamers
This may come as a surprise, but your coffee creamer likely isn't made with just milk and sugar. If you check the ingredients list, you're likely to find partially hydrogenated vegetable oils near the top — this is what gives your coffee creamer its creamy consistency. It also increases the product's shelf life.
Non-dairy coffee creamers are more likely to contain trans fats than dairy-based products. Instead of milk, these products rely on oil to produce a similar consistency.
Whole milk, cream and half-and-half are healthier alternatives to add to your coffee that are less likely to contain trans fats.
5. Frozen Pizzas
Tasty and convenient, frozen pizzas may be your go-to dinner on a busy weeknight, but you should think twice before you pop another pie in the oven.
Food companies inject partially hydrogenated oils in frozen pizzas, especially the crusts, to boost the food's flavor, texture and longevity.
"Frozen pizza may be a source of trans fat since many companies still use partially hydrogenated oil in pizza dough," says Mackenzie Burgess, RDN. "When shopping for frozen pizza, make sure to check the nutrition facts label for the amount of trans fat. Keep in mind that even if a label says 0 grams of trans fat, the product may still have up to 0.5 grams per serving. One way to know for sure is to read the ingredients list. If partially hydrogenated oil is listed, it may be worth steering clear of the product."
Eating too much sugar shouldn't be your only concern when you're snacking on sweets like candy bars, packaged pudding, ice cream, frosting and more. Unhealthy partially hydrogenated vegetable oils may be hiding amongst the ingredients of your favorite desserts.
Like baked goods, fast food and processed foods, trans fats are often added to sweets for texture, flavor and preservation purposes.
It's unlikely they'll be easy to spot on the packaging as the nutrition label may read 0 grams trans fats, but if you look closely at the ingredients list, you may be able to spot them and know which products to avoid.
How to Spot Trans Fats
To actually avoid trans fats in your food, you'll have to take matters into your own hands. For starters, don't trust the front of your food's package, says Lisa Moskovitz, RDN, founder and CEO of The NY Nutrition Group.
A product may advertise that it "contains zero trans fats" and still contain small quantities of trans fats. After you check the nutrition facts label, look for "partially hydrogenated oils" in the list of ingredients. If these oils are present in your food, so are trans fats.
You'll never be able to fully avoid trans fats as they occur naturally in certain foods. Some ruminant animal products, such as beef, dairy and lamb, contain small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats.
"Trans fat will always be present at some level in our food supply because it occurs naturally in some animal products and is also present in very small amounts in refined vegetable oils as an unintentional result of their manufacturing process," explains Kris Sollid, RD, senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council.
Though they can be difficult to avoid, it's not impossible to reduce your intake of trans fats. You can enjoy natural sources of trans fats. Man-made trans fats, otherwise known as partially hydrogenated oils, can be more difficult to spot than those found in animal products.
If you spot "hydrogenated oils" in your food product, know that these are another name for saturated fats, not trans fats.
Why Are Trans Fats So Unhealthy?
Trans fats are among the worst type of fat you can eat, according to the Mayo Clinic. They raise your "bad" cholesterol and lower your "good" cholesterol, making them the opposite of a heart-healthy food choice.
In fact, trans fats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. Diets high in trans fats can also increase your risk of stroke and type 2 diabetes, according to the American Heart Association.
Eating too many foods with trans fat can negatively affect your brain. People with higher levels of man-made trans fats in their blood were observed to be more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or dementia, according to an October 2019 study in Neurology.
Foods that claim to be trans-fat-free or low in trans fat aren't in the clear. Small doses of trans fats can add up, especially if you eat multiple servings. "If you eat multiple servings of a food, you may be consuming a significant amount of trans fat," Burgess says. That's why it's important to read nutrition facts labels and ingredient lists carefully.
Dietary fat is a vital part of your nutrition — just be sure to choose your sources of fat wisely and limit foods that contain trans fats.
- Neurology: “Serum Elaidic Acid Concentration and Risk of Dementia: the Hisayama Study" ”
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: ”Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fat)”
- Harvard T.H. Chan: "Artificial trans fats banned in U.S."
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Facts about trans fats"
- Cancer Prevention Research: "Thermally Abused Frying Oil Potentiates Metastasis to Lung in a Murine Model of Late-Stage Breast Cancer"
- Mayo Clinic: "Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health"
- American Heart Association: "Trans Fats"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Small Entity Compliance Guide: Trans Fatty Acids in Nutrition Labeling, Nutrient Content Claims, and Health Claims"