Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Skinny (or not so skinny) on Trans Fat

                I figured it was about time to tackle the article on fats. There seems to be a lot of confusion about fats; which are good, which are bad, and why we should care. I’ll briefly describe the different types of fats but I mostly want to focus on the dreaded trans fats. The chemical make-up of these different fats can explain why some are good and some are bad. One of the main things I want you to take away from this is that not all fats are bad and that you do need those good fats.
                Unsaturated fats are broken up in two categories: monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats are really oils. They are liquids at room temperature but they become slightly more solid or cloudy when put in the refrigerator. Studies have shown that when a person substitutes the saturated fat in their diet with monounsaturated fat, their blood cholesterol is lowered. This means that monounsaturated fats are good for you. Polyunsaturated fats cannot be produced by your body which means you can only get them from your diet. These fats are liquid at room temperature as well as when refrigerated. These fats do lower your blood cholesterol and are considered to be heart healthy. One of the common polyunsaturated fats a lot of people use are fish oils, often taken as a supplement. In short, unsaturated fats are good for you, and polyunsaturated fats can only be obtained through diet.
                Saturated fats are not as good for you. You still need some saturated fat in your diet, but not much. Saturated fats have all of the hydrogen atoms they can hold. These fats come from animals and animal products and they are all solid at room temperature. If you heat up saturated fats they become liquid but as it cools, it turns back into a waxy solid. Saturated fats can be found in milk, though milk is obviously liquid. Ever notice that whole milk is much thicker and will coat your spoon but skim or fat free milk is much thinner and will not coat your spoon? Saturated fats raise your blood cholesterol, which in turn raises your risk for heart disease and stroke.
                Trans fats are the worst possible fats you could eat. Many years ago food scientists tried to come up with a way to use less saturated fats in foods without compromising taste. (Saturated fats taste good, that’s why so many of our favorite cookies and candies are high in saturated fat.) They took polyunsaturated fat and put it through a process called hydrogenation. Healthy, polyunsaturated fats were heated and had hydrogen atoms added to it. This man-made fat was called trans fat. It had the ability to be used over and over again to fry foods without going rancid and it was thought to be healthier for you because it originated from polyunsaturated fats.
                The focus of this article today is trans fat and I hope to impress upon you the seriousness of what happens when we put this into our bodies. Gram for gram, trans fat poses 10 times more risk to our health than saturated fat. Because it is a man-made fat, our body has an extremely hard time processing trans fat. In nine different (and quite large) studies, both saturated fat and trans fat were shown to decrease good cholesterol and increase bad cholesterol. However, the effect of trans fat was 2.5 times worse than the effects of saturated fat. According to Dr. Steven Aldana, “the minimum amount of trans fats a person can consume and not increase risk is zero.”
                So, where do we find trans fat? The answer may surprise you. Margarine, vegetable shortening, any deep-fried foods, french fries, most bakery goods, and anything made with shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil contain trans fat. When you look at the nutrition facts on these items, some say that they contain trans fat and other don’t. Why is that? Well, the FDA requires that food labels include trans fats. That sounds nice, right? At least we are aware that we are slowly poisoning our bodies. Unfortunately, the FDA said they only had to include trans fat if there was 0.5 grams of trans fat or more per serving. Hmm. Not so good. This means if companies who use trans fat in their products can create a small enough serving size, they don’t have to report the use of trans fat.
                Have you ever looked at a serving size of any one of these items? In Crisco brand all-vegetable shortening it claims to have 0 grams of trans fat in its 1 tablespoon serving size. However, if you look at the ingredient list below the nutrition label, you can find the words “partially hydrogenated” which means, there is trans fat in that product, but it has less than 0.5 grams per 1 tablespoon serving. No one goes and eats shortening from the tub, but shortening is often found in pastries, cookies, cakes, and frostings. I have a butter cream frosting recipe that contains more than 2 cups of shortening. Guaranteed you’re eating more than a tablespoon of shortening by the time you eat a piece of one of my frosted cakes. Or how about those yummy processed cookies you love to eat? No trans fat in those bad boys right? Less than 0.5 grams per one cookie. But how many cookies do you eat? Three, four? I know I can’t stop at one.
                So how do we cut out trans fats when they are found in our favorite foods? My first suggestion would be to go through packages of your favorite processed foods and look at the nutrition label and the ingredient list. If it has trans fat or has the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list, you have a problem. Make note of those foods. Often you can find other brands of the same food that don’t have trans fat. For example, I love those cheep little sandwich cookies with the frosting in the middle. Most contain trans fat. I found a store brand of those same little cookies with no trans fat. Sure I had to look around, but it was worth it. You don’t have to cut those foods out completely, you just have to look for a brand that makes the same food without trans fat. If there’s no trans fat on the label but it does contain partially hydrogenated oils, you can eat them. Just stick to the serving size. The problem comes when we eat well over the serving size and suddenly you’ve eaten several grams of trans fat.
                Bake with butter instead of margarine. Sure saturated fats are bad for you. But remember that trans fats are 10 times worse. If you’re going to bake, bake with butter instead. You still have to be careful of how much you eat, but your risk is significantly reduced. Sure your breads and crusts and pastries won’t be quite as flaky but is that little bit of extra flakiness worth your health? I think not.
                If you’ve got to have that french fry fix, go to a fast food joint that doesn’t use partially hydrogenated oils to fry those bad boys. In-N-Out Burger has the healthiest french fries because they use peanut oil to fry. (No, there is not a peanutty taste to the fries…) Some fast food chains have committed to using healthier oils and not partially hydrogenated oils to fry their foods and those are the ones you want to hit. Frito-Lay products have also committed to reducing trans fat use and in some cases have stopped its use. You’re safe eating chips by Frito-Lay! Other companies like McDonald’s have said they will cut their trans fats in half to appease their patrons have not actually followed through.
                Be smart. You’re health is more important than any cookie or pastry so make the effort to find the healthiest ones and take steps to cut your trans fat intake to zero. Good luck!

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