How much do you really know about trans fats? You've probably heard that they're super bad for you. So bad, in fact, that in 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially declared that trans fats are no longer Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) and then banned them as an ingredient in foods three years later.
However, that doesn't mean you're completely safe from these bad-for-you fats: Unhealthy trans fats may still be hiding among your favorite foods. Here, Lisa Moskovitz, RDN, founder and CEO of The NY Nutrition Group, explains how to identify and avoid foods that still contain traces of trans fats.
Trans Fat Foods to Avoid
For starters, don't trust the front of your food's package, says Moskovitz. A product may say "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.
Pay special attention to the following foods where trans fats may still be lurking.
1. Fast Food
Many restaurants and fast food joints use oils with trans fats to fry foods since they're cheap and long-lasting. Indeed, these unhealthy oils floating in the deep fryer can be reused multiple times, says Moskovitz.
Read more: 10 Ways to Make Fast Food Healthier
2. Microwave Popcorn
Some snack brands add trans fats to microwavable popcorn to increase its shelf life, Moskovitz says. Since partially hydrogenated oil has a high melting point, it can remain solid and intact until microwaved, deeming it desirable for the brand — but not for your health.
3. Baked Goods
From doughnuts to cookies, cakes, muffins and pies, baked goods may be harboring trans fats. That's because they're often made with shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils to enhance their taste and texture, says Moskovitz.
4. Coffee Creamers
That creamy consistency you praise your favorite coffee creamer for may be a result of trans fats. The partially hydrogenated oil used to make creamer also increases the product's shelf life, according to Moskovitz.
5. Frozen Pizzas
Easy 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. Again, food companies inject partially hydrogenated oils to boost the food's flavor and texture, says Moskovitz.
Eating too much sugar shouldn't be your only concern when you're snacking on sweets. Unhealthy partially hydrogenated vegetable oils may be hiding amongst the ingredients of your favorite candy bars, too, says Moskovitz.
How to Spot Trans Fats — and Why Are They so Unhealthy?
First things first, there are two types of trans fats: Naturally occurring trans fats, which can be found in small amounts in some meat and dairy products, and artificial trans fats, which are man-made fats otherwise known as partially hydrogenated oils, Moskovitz tells LIVESTRONG.com.
If you spot "hydrogenated oils" in your food product, know that these are another name for saturated fats, not trans fats.
Unlike heart-healthy fats, diets high in trans fats can raise your harmful LDL cholesterol levels and lower your good HDL cholesterol levels while increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, according to the American Heart Association.
Read more: 18 Fat-Rich Foods That Are Good for You
In addition, eating too many foods with trans fat can negatively affect your brain. An October 2019 study in Neurology observed that people with higher levels of man-made trans fats in their blood were more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
These ill effects are why the FDA banned trans fats as of June 2018. But there's a catch: Some food companies have until January 1, 2020 to transition to the new law, says Moskovitz. So that means that certain food products manufactured before this date can still be distributed throughout the marketplace — and found on grocery shelves — until January 1, 2020.
What's worse, once the 2020 deadline rolls around, you're still not totally safe from buying foods containing man-made trans fats. "A product may be legally labeled 'trans-fat-free' if it contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving," says Moskovitz.
The problem: Small doses of trans fats can add up, especially if you eat multiple servings. "That's why it's important to read nutritional labels and ingredient lists carefully," says Moskovitz.
And you'll have to be extra diligent in reading labels if you're not in the U.S. The World Health Organization (WHO) called to eliminate industrially produced trans fats on a global level by 2023, so you might still spot those partially hydrogenated oils in food products outside the U.S. for a while.
- American Heart Association: “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)”
- World Health Organization: "Countdown to 2023: WHO Report on Global Trans Fat Elimination 2019"