Trans Fat: When Cheap Means Costly


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If you don't read the ingredient list of everything you eat, you're probably consuming trans fats. And if you're not sure what they are, this may be the most important thing you've ever read.

Doctors, academics, and government officials alike have warned us about trans fats for more than a decade now. Yet it’s amazing how often I meet someone who is – or learn that a friend is – clueless about how detrimental these man-made fats are to our health, even in small amounts.

Trans fats made national headlines again just last week, when Colorado lawmakers proposed a bill that would eliminate trans fats from grade-school foods, MSNBC reported.

Trans fats are cheaply produced, so some foods that contain trans fats are cheaper than their healthier counterparts. But in the long run, it could cost your health more than it saves your wallet.

“Budget-conscious shoppers might be tempted to buy the cheapest brand of pastry, pot pie, or microwave popcorn,” WebMD warns. “But don’t make that decision at the expense of nutrition.”

If you’re ready to save your health, just follow these steps…

1. Understand trans fat

How it’s made…

Natural trans fats: A small amount of trans fat is found in certain meat and milk products, because it’s naturally produced in the stomachs of grazing animals like cows and sheep. But this isn’t the kind of trans fat that health advocates warn against – or that you should worry about. As the U.S. Department of Health points out, to eliminate foods that contain natural trans fats could actually be detrimental to your nutrition.

Synthetic trans fats: Man-made trans fats, also called partially hydrogenated oils, are created by adding hydrogen atoms to a liquid oil, like vegetable oils. This process makes the oil semi-solid.

Food manufacturers like trans fats because they’re easy to use, cheap to produce, and have a long shelf life, says the American Heart Association.

Restaurants like trans fats because they can be heated multiple times without breaking down, Harvard says. In other words, partially hydrogenated oils are ideal for frying food because restaurants can reuse the same batch of oil many times before changing it. Gross, huh?

Why it’s so bad…

The Harvard School of Public Health has called trans fats “the worst fat for the heart, blood vessels, and rest of the body.”

Trans fats are most known for both raising “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and lowering “good” (HDL) cholesterol. No other type of fat causes both of those effects – which increase your risk for heart disease (the No. 1 killer of Americans) and stroke (the No. 3 killer).

As the University of Maryland Medical Center plainly puts it…

The stiffer and harder fats are, the more they clog up your arteries. Artificial trans fats do the same thing in our bodies that bacon grease does to kitchen sinks. Over time, they can ‘clog the pipes’ that feed the heart and brain, which can lead to heart attack or stroke risk.

In a 2006 analysis by Harvard, the women who ate the most trans fats proved more than three times more likely to develop heart disease than the women who ate the least trans fats. “We saw a linear relationship,” Dr. Qi Sun told WebMD. “The more trans fats you consume, the worse it is for your heart.”

Trans fats may also make us fatter than other fats. Another 2006 Harvard analysis found that over an eight-year period,  an increased consumption of trans fat corresponded to an increase in weight. In 2007, a Wake Forest University School of Medicine study found that monkeys that were fed trans fats “gained significant weight,” especially in their abdomen.

Trans fats have also been linked to inflammation and an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. In studies published last year, trans fats were even linked to larger babies and reduced brain function later in life.

2. Avoid trans fat

Why you should avoid it…

From the Department of Health to the American Heart Association to Dr. Oz, experts generally agree that no amount of synthetic trans fats is safe to consume. In other words, avoid it completely.

As Harvard puts it…

Even small amounts of trans fat in the diet can have harmful health effects. For every extra 2 percent of calories from trans fat daily, the risk of coronary heart disease increases by 23 percent.

How to spot it…

Food Nutrition Facts labels have listed trans fats since 2006 – but you can’t trust them. If a food contains less than 0.5 grams of fat, the government allows the manufacturer to claim 0 grams of trans fat on the label.

To completely remove synthetic trans fats from your diet, it’s imperative that you read the list of ingredients on everything you eat. All ingredients that are partially hydrogenated are synthetic trans fats. So if you see the words “partially hydrogenated” anywhere, put it back on the shelf.

Manufacturers have cut back on their use of trans fats in recent years, but you’ll still find them in dozens of foods at the grocery store – and at restaurants and fast-food joints, where trans fats are more easily hidden. Check out 7 Tips to Eat Healthy When Eating Out to learn how to find Nutrition Facts for restaurant foods.

Karla Bowsher was raised by a stringent cardiologist and worked as a medical office administrator for 10 years before going into journalism. She now runs our Deals page; writes “Today’s Deals” posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and covers consumer and retail issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at [email protected].

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