Editor’s Note: The Obama administration Tuesday issued a statement on trans fats, calling them a threat to public health, and it is requiring food companies to phase out artificial trans fats almost entirely.
By Dan Myers, Editor of The Daily Meal
What is trans fat, exactly? Essentially, it’s the type of fat that’s created when hydrogen is added to the chemical structure of a fat, typically vegetable oil. The addition of hydrogen helps to make the fat (and therefore the food it’s used in) more shelf-stable, preventing it from easily spoiling when left out unrefrigerated. Partial hydrogenation (the process of adding hydrogen to fat) also creates a semi-solid fat, which is necessary in order to prevent foods from melting at room temperature. Partially hydrogenated oil is also much cheaper than butter, lard, or other semi-solid fats like palm oil. Trans fats also take much longer to go rancid than traditional fats, making partially-hydrogenated oil a favorite frying oil for restaurants.
Trans fats actually occur naturally in animal fat and dairy, but at much smaller concentrations than the amount used in processed foods. Trans fats also have no nutritional value. While saturated fat (most commonly found in animal fat and cheese) and trans fats increase levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol), trans fats actually decrease the level of HDL (“good” cholesterol) in the bloodstream, increasing the risk of heart disease. While it’s impossible to completely avoid all trans fats due to their presence in nature, the National Academy of Sciences advises cutting them out of your diet as much as possible, and the best place to start is avoiding all foods with the phrase “partially hydrogenated” anywhere in the ingredients list.
So what exactly are the risks associated with eating too much trans fat? We’re glad you asked! A diet high in trans fats can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease. Studies have also indicated that increased trans fat consumption may lead to Alzheimer’s disease, prostate and breast cancer, Type 2 diabetes, liver dysfunction, infertility, depression, and even aggression.
Read on to learn which 13 foods are the highest in trans fats. And even if the nutrition label says there’s no trans fat, brands are allowed to round down to zero if there’s less than half a gram. So check the ingredients: if there’s anything there that’s partially hydrogenated, that means trans fats are present and you should probably buy something else.
Because partially hydrogenated oil lasts longer without going rancid, many restaurants deep-fry with it. Most fast food chains have made the switch to non-hydrogenated oil, but several, like Popeye’s, still haven’t (an order of Popeye’s hash browns contains a whopping 10 grams). As for what’s in the fry-o-lator at your local bar and grill, there’s really no way to know, so it’s best to avoid the fried stuff altogether.
The light, flaky consistency is in pie crusts in many cases due to trans fats.
Margarine is basically vegetable oil that’s been converted into a solid, and the oil needs to be hydrogenated in order to make that happen. For example, Land O’Lakes margarine contains 2.5 grams of trans fat per tablespoon. Better to just stick with butter.
Crisco may claim via the nutrition label that it’s trans fat-free, but there’s still hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list.
Betty Crocker’s frosting can contain up to two grams of trans fats.
Pancake and waffle mixes depend on trans fats for that light texture, and Bisquick still contains 1.5 grams per serving.
Even though creamers claim via the nutrition label that they contain zero grams of trans fat, they’re just rounding down. Partially hydrogenated oil is usually pretty high up in the ingredient list, and adding some to your coffee every morning can certainly add up.
Want to know a secret? The “butter” flavor in Pop Secret (and several other brands of popcorn) is just oil with artificial flavoring — and partially hydrogenated oil at that. Pop Secret’s butter flavor contains 15 grams of trans fats per bag.
Animal Fat and Dairy
Trans fats occur naturally in animal-derived fat. It’s present in rather small quantities though, nowhere near as much as in processed foods.
Store-Bought Cookies and Cakes
In order to keep cookies and cakes shelf-stable for so long, the fat used can’t go rancid, as butter does. Cheaper and more shelf-stable partially hydrogenated oils are used instead.
Most fast food chains have removed trans fats from their biscuits, but the ones you buy in the supermarket (including frozen biscuit breakfast sandwiches) still contain trans fats: Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches contain up to three grams, as do Pillsbury Grands! Homestyle Buttermilk Biscuits.
Creamy Frozen Drinks
Most of Dairy Queen’s Blizzards and shakes contain between 0.5 and 1.5 grams of trans fats, as do the shakes at all the other chains (Wendy’s vanilla frosty waffle cone contains six grams, more than any other item on the menu).
If it’s a shelf-stable product, it most likely contains trans fats. Even Saltines are no exception. If it contains anything hydrogenated, it contains trans fats.