In 2006, New York City took a step towards what Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest calls “

[in] terms of lives saved….the single most important change to our food supply.” In a unanimous vote, the New York City Board of Health voted to require that restaurants eliminate the use of trans fats in their fryers by July of 2007 and eliminate it altogether by 2008. The restaurant industry in New York City strenuously objected to the ban on trans fats foods, but years later the ban appears to be having a positive effect on that city’s health. Researchers and consumers have known for years that trans fats foods are dangerous and unhealthy but many continue to include them in their diets. It is important understand what trans fats foods are, where trans fats appear, and how they affect the body.

What are trans fats foods?

Trans fats, often referred to as trans fatty acids, can occur in two ways. Trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products, but the majority of trans fats are created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil. This causes the fat to become solid at room temperature. This type of trans fats is usually noted on ingredient labels as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.”

Where do trans fats appear?

Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is more shelf stable than many other types of fats. This means that trans fats foods last longer in grocery stores, making them more cost-effective for the food industry.

Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil can be found most commonly in the following trans fats foods:

  • Baked goods: Store-bought pies, cakes, cookies, pie crusts, and crackers are often made with shortening, a product that is made from partially hydrogenated oil. Store-bought frosting also usually contains trans fats.
  • Snacks: Microwave or packaged popcorn, tortilla chips, and potato chips may all contain some form of trans fats.
  • Fried food: In restaurants and in frozen, pre-packaged meals, trans fats are widely used for both taste and to improve texture.
  • Creamer and shortening: Both of these often contain partially hydrogenated oil to improve the texture of the product.

How do trans fats foods affect the body?

Trans fats foods are one of the most harmful and wide-ranging types of foods one can eat. In addition to being a major contributor to the obesity epidemic, trans fats foods also have the following effects on the body:

  • Negative changes to cholesterol levels: Trans fats foods raise your low-density lipoprotein levels (LDL) while lowering your high-density lipoprotein levels (HDL). Higher levels of LDL is associated with increased risk of heart attack and stroke. HDL protects against this somewhat, but trans fats foods lower the level of this “good” kind of cholesterol.
  • Increased risk of heart disease and death: Even more than foods containing large amounts of butter, trans fats foods increase the risk of these major health conditions by as much as 34%.
  • Increased levels of hostility and aggression: A study of nearly 1,000 men and women of all races, ages, and ethnicities found significantly increased levels of aggression and hostility in those who consumed more trans fats foods. Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, associate professor in the UC San Diego department of medicine and study lead pointed out that even if the relationship is causal, “this adds further rationale to recommendations to avoid eating trans fats, or including them in foods provided at institutions like schools and prisons, since the detrimental effects of trans fats may extend beyond the person who consumes them to affect others.”
  • Leads to weight gain: Even on a diet of the same total calories, monkeys who consumed more trans fats foods in a study out of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center gained additional weight. They specifically gained the additional weight in their mid-section, developing an “apple” shaped body that indicates a higher risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Although the difference in weight gain was small, it was enough to indicate a significant threat posed by trans fats food.
  • Increases the risk of depression: Consuming too many trans fats can lead to an increased risk of depression. The study, headed by the University of Navarra and the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, looked at the diet and lifestyle of over 12,000 people over the course of six years. At the end of the study, 657 people with the diets highest in trans fats foods had developed clinical depression.

Avoiding trans fats foods 

One of the reason trans fats are so dangerous is that they are in many different foods that we regularly consume. Take the following steps to avoid trans fats:

  • Read labels: Look for trans fats in the ingredient list, not the nutrition information. In the U.S., if a food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fats the nutritional information can say there are no trans fats. Even 0.5 grams at a time can add up quickly. Look for partially hydrogenated vegetable oil as an ingredient, or hydrogenated oil of any kind, regardless of what the nutrition information says.
  • Eat fresh: As much as possible, stay away from pre-packaged foods, including frozen foods. The best nutritional value comes from food that is eaten as close to its natural state as possible. If you must have cream in your coffee, use whole milk or straight cream without added flavors or other ingredients.
  • Try a different oil: Heart-healthy olive oil is a great substitute for trans fats. In the depression study above, study participants with the lowest chance of depression consumed diets that featured plenty of olive oil. Good for body and mind!
  • Watch fat consumption in general: Only 25 to 35% of your daily caloric intake should come from fat. Of that, just 10% should be saturated fat. Keep your totals well below those percentages, sticking to healthy fats.

In June of 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration indicated that trans fats were no longer recognized as safe for consumption and gave the food industry until 2018 to completely remove trans fats foods from the shelves. What do you think of this requirement?


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