By Venkatesh Ganapathy

What exactly are trans fats, you may wonder? There exist two varieties of them – one that occurs naturally in small quantities in dairy and meat and another, that is produced artificially when liquid oils undergo a process known as “partial hydrogenation.” The natural trans fats aren’t a major concern, especially if your usual choices include low-fat dairy and lean meats. The genuine cause for alarm in the American diet is the artificial trans fats, which find extensive use in fried foods, baked goods, cookies, icings, crackers, packaged snacks, microwave popcorn, and certain stick margarines.

Trans fats were historically used by the food and beverage (F&B) industry for several reasons, although their usage has significantly decreased in recent years due to health concerns. Here are some of the reasons why trans fats were once used in the F&B industry:

  1. Extended Shelf Life: Trans fats can enhance the shelf life of processed foods, making them less prone to spoilage and rancidity. This is beneficial for manufacturers because it allows products to have a longer time on store shelves.
  2. Texture and Consistency: Trans fats contribute to the texture and consistency of certain foods, such as baked goods, pastries, and fried foods. They can provide a desirable level of crispness and flakiness.
  3. Reusability of Cooking Oils: Trans fats were often used in deep frying because they make oils more stable and extend the lifespan of frying oils. This means that restaurants and fast-food chains could use the same oil for a more extended period before needing to change it.
  4. Cost-Effectiveness: In some cases, trans fats were considered cost-effective alternatives to other fats and oils. They were cheaper than some healthier alternatives, which made them attractive to food manufacturers.

However, it’s important to note that the health risks associated with trans fats have led to regulatory changes in many countries. As a result, there has been a substantial reduction in the use of trans fats in the F&B industry, and many manufacturers have switched to healthier fat and oil alternatives to meet consumer demand for more nutritious and safer food options. The heightened attention towards these artificial trans fats began when research revealed their potential to elevate the risk of heart disease by increasing levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and reducing levels of “good” HDL cholesterol.

Foods that contain trans fats

  • Bread, Cream Crackers
  • Cookies, biscuits, donuts, muffins, pastries
  • French fries, potato chips, corn chips
  • Canned foods that contain sugar
  • Non-dairy creamer
  • Yoghurt

The American Heart Association (AHA) advises keeping trans fat intake to below 2 grams per day, a limit that includes both naturally occurring trans fats. In contrast, the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines simply recommend minimizing trans fat consumption as much as possible.

It’s worth noting that even if a product’s label claims “zero trans fats,” it can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, as allowed by the law, and still be labeled as trans fat-free. This same rule applies to saturated fats. Only when a food label explicitly states “no trans fats” does it truly mean there are none. The issue here is that even small amounts of these artery-clogging fats can accumulate rapidly, especially if you consume multiple servings daily of products that contain up to 0.5 grams per serving.

For instance, microwave popcorn can be an excellent source of fiber, a whole grain, and low in calories. However, if you consume several cups of microwave popcorn, the trans fat content can significantly accumulate.

The only way to ensure that you are consuming a product that is genuinely devoid of trans fats is to examine the ingredient list on the label. Steer clear of items that contain “partially hydrogenated fats or oils,” which are the primary source of trans fats, as well as those with “shortening” listed. It’s also important to be aware that some manufacturers are breaking down components of food ingredients separately to downplay the presence of trans fats in the ingredient list.

Trans fats are considered the most harmful type of fats, surpassing even saturated fats in terms of health concerns. Nevertheless, when assessing a food product, it’s crucial to consider the complete nutritional profile, including factors such as calories, total fat, saturated fat, vitamins, minerals, sodium, sugar, and fiber.

Opting for heart-healthy monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils, such as olive, canola, or corn oil, is a viable choice for certain products. However, this may not be suitable when a solid fat is required for food preparation. Replacing trans fat with saturated fat is a better alternative, but it’s not the optimal solution from a health perspective.

Labels that proudly declare “zero trans fat” don’t necessarily indicate that a product is entirely devoid of trans fats. According to regulations, these foods can still contain minor amounts of trans fats per serving. To be certain, you must flip the packaging over and examine both the ingredient list and the nutrition facts panel.

While trans fat is receiving a significant amount of negative attention, it’s crucial to consider the broader perspective when it comes to dietary fat, encompassing total fat, saturated fat, and the overall lifestyle. Restricting trans fats represents just one aspect of maintaining a healthy dietary regimen, which should encompass a diverse range of nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Additionally, it involves moderating total fat and saturated fat intake, engaging in regular physical activity, and maintaining a healthy weight.

Convenience foods can avoid trans fats by using alternative fats and oils that are healthier.  Oils like canola, soybean, safflower, and sunflower oil are typically low in saturated and trans fats. They can be used in cooking, frying, and as ingredients in a wide range of processed foods.

Olive oil, particularly extra virgin olive oil, is a heart-healthy option for certain applications, such as salad dressings, sautéing, and lower-heat cooking. While palm oil contains saturated fats, it doesn’t contain trans fats. It is often used as a trans fat alternative in various food products. High-oleic sunflower or canola oil, have a high mono-unsaturated fat content and are more stable at high temperatures, making them suitable for frying and baking.

In some applications, butter can be used as a substitute for trans fats, although it contains saturated fats. Moderation is key. Some manufacturers produce margarines that are specifically formulated to be trans fat-free. These can be used in baking and spreading.

It’s important to keep in mind that while these alternatives can reduce or eliminate trans fats, the overall healthiness of convenience foods depends on other factors as well, such as the total fat content, saturated fat content, and the presence of other potentially unhealthy ingredients like excessive salt or added sugars. Consumers should still read food labels and nutritional information to make informed choices. Additionally, the food industry is moving toward healthier formulations in response to consumer demand and regulatory changes, so it’s becoming easier to find trans fat-free convenience foods.

About the author

Associate Professor, Presidency Business School, Bangalore, Karnataka