Basics on Trans Fatty Acids and the Heart

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In recent years it has become clear that a form of fat called trans fatty acids are not the benign food additive that many previously believed them to be. Rather, trans fatty acids have a deleterious effect on cholesterol levels, and more importantly, on cardiovascular risk. 

As a result of this new understanding, the food processing industry is being urged to make a major shift away from adding trans fatty acids to removing them from our processed foods. While this shift in the food processing industry is going on, it is important for us as consumers to eliminate the foods that still contain trans fatty acids from our diets.

What Are Trans Fatty Acids (Trans Fats)?

Natural foods (that is, unprocessed foods) contain two main types of fatty acids - saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fatty acids — which come from animal fats (meat, lard, dairy products) and tropical oils such as coconut and palm oils — can raise your blood levels of LDL cholesterol(“bad” cholesterol). Unsaturated fatty acids in general do not increase cholesterol levels, and may reduce them.

Trans fatty acids (trans fats) are a third form of fatty acids. While trans fats do occur in tiny amounts in some foods (particularly dairy and meat from cows and sheep), almost all the trans fats now in our diets come from an industrial process that partially hydrogenates (adds hydrogen to) unsaturated fatty acids from vegetable oils. 

This means that in our diets, trans fats are almost exclusively found in the processed foods we eat.

Why the Food Processing Industry Adopted Trans Fatty Acids

The advantage of trans fats to the food processing industry is that partial hydrogenation solidifies and stabilizes vegetable oils, which otherwise tend to turn rancid relatively quickly. Because they exist in solid form instead of liquid form, trans fats can be used as substitutes for saturated fats in food products that are meant to have a long shelf life.

The industrial processes for manufacturing trans fats were invented in the 1890s, and these products began entering the food supply in the 1910s. However, the use of trans fats in food processing really took off in the 1970s and 1980s, when saturated fats were deemed to be bad for health. Ironically, the adoption of trans fatty acids in our food supply was urged on by various public health experts, who had declared saturated fats to be public enemy number one.

Because trans fats were derived from vegetable oils, for many years it was assumed that they would be healthy food products.

What Is Unhealthy About Trans Fats?

Unfortunately, as it turns out (and as we were relatively slow to learn), trans fats increase total cholesterol levels and LDL cholesterol levels; worse (and in contrast to saturated fats), they reduce HDL cholesterol levels. Trans fats also appear to interfere with the body’s usage of omega–3 fatty acids, which are important for heart health.

In other words, trans fatty acids are bad for cardiovascular health.

  • Read about the sad history of trans fatty acids.

In fact, it now appears quite evident that trans fatty acids are far worse for cardiovascular health than saturated fats. Indeed, the old dogma about saturated fats posing a serious risk to cardiovascular health has now been questioned by some experts. 

In any case, the major push by public health experts to substitute trans fats for saturated fats in our diet is now regarded — by virtually everybody — as a major mistake. 

What Is Being Done About Trans Fatty Acids?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration now recognizes the health risk of trans fatty acids and has mandated food labeling standards that require the trans fatty acid content to be included on the label. The FDA has not indicated any “safe level” of trans fatty acids, as their scientific panel decided that any amount of trans fatty acids is bad. The new labeling requires food companies to list the amount of trans fatty acids (as well as saturated fats) in all processed foods.

The goal, clearly, is to eliminate trans fatty acids from processed foods altogether.

Which Foods Contain Trans Fatty Acids?

Fortunately, it is pretty easy to identify foods that contain relatively large amounts of trans fatty acids: margarines (the more solid the margarine, the more the trans fatty acids; stick margarines contain the most, tub margarines contain less, and semi-liquid margarines contain the least;) high-fat baked goods (especially doughnuts, cookies and cakes;) and any product for which the label says “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.”

All of these should be avoided in a heart healthy diet. Furthermore, keep in mind that processed foods, especially baked goods, must include some type of shortening in order to have a reasonable shelf life. These foods no longer contain saturated fats (long since hounded out of use), and now presumably they contain no (or few) trans fatty acids.

So, what do they contain? The fact is, this is unknown. Presumably, they contain some sort of processed vegetable oil that has the structural properties of saturated fats. (Otherwise, they would be of no use as shortening.) How safe these new, unknown products may be is not known.

This is another very good reason to avoid eating processed foods, as much as you possibly can.

A Word From Verywell

Trans fatty acids, added to processed foods decades ago as a substitute for saturated fat, turn out to be worse for cardiovascular health than saturated fat. We should all try to avoid ingesting trans fatty acids and other forms of industrially-processed fat, mainly by avoiding processed foods as much as possible.

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Article Sources

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