Trans Fats and Your Health

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It gives some supermarket staples their signature taste and texture, but if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has its way, trans fat will be a thing of the past.

The FDA recently proposed a measure to eliminate all artificial trans fat, which has been shown to be a major contributor to heart disease, from the food supply. The agency says that banning trans fat could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths every year. If the proposal is approved, partially hydrogenated oils–the source of trans fat–will no longer be recognized as safe for consumption, effectively altering the ingredient lists of many processed foods, from frozen pizza to microwaveable popcorn to coffee creamer.

About Trans Fats

What are trans fats and how did they get such a bad rap? Otherwise known as trans fatty acids, trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Food companies use them as cheap, long-lasting flavor enhancers and many restaurants and fast-food chains depend on them for deep-frying.

The Trouble with Trans Fats

One problem: Trans fats not only raise the levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, but they lower “good” HDL levels as well. According to One Medical Group provider Spencer Blackman, MD, that’s one of the mechanisms by which trans fatty acids raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. Moreover, says Blackman, “Trans fats make our arteries more susceptible to harmful build-up, likely by causing low-level systemic inflammation and increasing insulin resistance.”

In addition to being linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, trans fat consumption has also been associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. According to the Nurses’ Health Study, one of the longest-running and largest health studies to date, every one percent increase in calories consumed as trans fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by about one percent as well.

Trans Fat Consumption Already Declining

The FDA is currently open to a 60-day comment period to collect more data and figure out how long it might take food manufacturers to reformulate products containing trans fats. The agency originally began requiring companies to list artificial trans fats on food labels in 2003. As consumers became more educated about the risks, manufacturers voluntarily reduced trans fats. Trans fat consumption has dropped by almost 80 percent in the last decade, according to the FDA, in part assisted by some cities, like New York, which enacted local bans.

Get Familiar with Food Labels

Whether or not the proposal is officially approved, it’s important to know how to recognize trans fat in foods. As labeling laws stand now, manufacturers are still allowed to claim their products contain “0 grams trans fat” even if the food in question has up to 0.5 grams per serving. That means eating multiple servings of a product containing small amounts of trans fat can add up to an unhealthy amount.

Rather than relying on marketing, going straight to the ingredients list can help clarify whether a product contains trans fat. If a label lists “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” know that’s another term for “trans fat.”

Common trans-fat containing culprits include:

  • Crackers
  • Cookies
  • Cakes
  • Doughnuts
  • French fries

While there’s no official limit to the amount of trans fat that’s considered safe to consume, both the FDA and American Heart Association (AHA) encourage consumers to limit their intake, with the AHA recommending no more than one percent of total daily calories coming from trans fat.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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