Your nutrition labels are hiding something.
Trans fats have been on the nutrition suspect list since they were invented in the 1900s. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, however, that the FDA acknowledged the clear-cut evidence that trans fats were actually harmful to human health.
What Are Trans Fats?
There are broadly two types of trans fats found in the food you eat: Naturally-occuring trans fats, which come from animal products (e.g., dairy and meat), and artificial trans fat (or trans fatty acids), which is made by humans.
Artificial trans fat is created via an industrial process where hydrogen is added to liquid oils to make them more solid, especially at room temperature. The primary dietary source for trans fatty acids is called partially hydrogenated oils.
Artificial trans fat is the type that’s been shown to have bad health effects on humans. Trans fats raise your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and lower your “good” HDL cholesterol. Eating trans fats also increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke, and may increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Due to the overwhelming evidence of trans fat’s effects, in 2015, the FDA officially deemed partially hydrogenated oils as no longer Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) in human food.
Naturally-occuring trans fats, however, have no sufficient evidence to determine if they have the same effect on cholesterol as the artificial kind.
Decoding the Trans Fat Label Lingo
In 2003—before trans fats were kicked off the GRAS list—the FDA made a ruling that trans fats must be listed on the nutrition label. While this was a great stride to better inform the public about what they put in their bodies, there was one snag in the clarity of the label.
The rule stated that trans fats must be listed on a separate line under saturated fat whenever present in amounts of 0.5 grams or more per serving.
Here’s where things get tricky: Products can say there’s 0 g of trans fat per serving, as long as there’s less than 0.5 grams. So, the label for your cookie may say 0 grams of trans fat when it actually has 0.4 grams per serving. Those trans fat counts can really add up, which means you may be eating way more than you think.
How to Limit Your Trans Fat Intake
Trans fats have a negative effect on human health and are not essential to the diet. While it may be tough to eliminate trans fat from your diet completely, it is wise to reduce your intake of it as much as possible. Here are ways to lower your trans fat intake:
Instead of solely relying on the “0 g trans fat” listing on nutrition labels, check the ingredients for “partially hydrogenated oils” too. If your eats list “partially hydrogenated oils,” swap for a brand without it.
Eat a diet that emphasizes fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and choose low-fat dairy products and lean meats.
Limit your intake of processed foods that have been known to have higher amounts of trans fats, such as fast food, frozen pizza, cookies, ready-to-use frostings, microwave popcorn, crackers, vegetable shortening, and stick margarine.
The effects of trans fats may sound scary, but if you watch food labels and your diet, you can keep that fear of trans fats quiet.
Trans fat. Food and Drug Administration. (Accessed on June 21, 2019 at https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/trans-fat.html)
Trans fats. American Heart Association. (Accessed on June 21, 2019 at https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/trans-fat)
History of Nutrition Labeling. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols. (Accessed on June 21, 2019 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209859)