My philosophy on food has always been to eat foods as close to their natural state as possible: minimally processed, whole, natural foods. As you may know, trans fats do not exist naturally: they are man-made. Trans fats are produced industrially when vegetable oils (which are already highly processed and chemically treated) are partially hydrogenated. Sounds harmless right? Nope! The bottom line is that there is nothing natural about trans fats. Our bodies do not recognize them or metabolize them properly, which makes them detrimental to our health. Health risks associated with the consumption of trans fats include, but are not limited to: obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, an increased risk for coronary artery disease and the development of Type 2 Diabetes.
BUT I’m assuming that if you are reading this you haven’t been living under a rock and are aware of the health risks that trans fats pose. The reason I am writing this post is to inform you of something you may NOT know about trans fats:
You are most likely consuming trans fats without even knowing it!
dun dun dun
“But the box of crackers says ‘trans fat-free!’,” you say. Am I trying to tell you those ‘trustworthy’ food manufacturers are deceiving you? Yes, that’s exactly what I am telling you. For several years now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required food manufacturers to list trans fats on Nutrition Facts panels of their food products. HOWEVER there are thousands of foods on the market today that contain trans fats and can claim that they are “trans fat-free”. How is this possible? In the United States, if food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat in a serving, the Nutrition Facts panel can read 0 grams trans fat. In addition to the panel reading 0 grams trans fat, the manufacturer will most likely boast that their product is “trans fat-free” loud and proud in big bold letters on the front of its package so you can really be assured that you are purchasing a quality product (NOT!).
So how do you know if food that is claiming to be “trans fat-free” does in fact contain trans fats? Simple: read the ingredients. For an example I snapped a picture of a Nutrition Facts panel on the back of a popular coffee creamer when I was at the supermarket yesterday. Side note: there is an entire wall of that stuff at the grocery store! They practically have an entire aisle dedicated to coffee creamer (and trans fats!). So if you take a look at this label, you will notice that there are 0 grams trans fats listed. Now before you jump up and down screaming “Hooray! My beloved coffee creamer is trans fat free!” take a look at the ingredients. (I’m going to ignore the fact that the second ingredient is SUGAR which is an issue I’ll have to address another time.) Now, take a look at the third ingredient/s: “Vegetable oil (high oleic soybean oil and/or partially hydrogenated soybean and/or partially hydrogenated cottonseed)” Any time partially hydrogenated oil – of ANY kind – is listed as an ingredient, the product contains trans fats. It’s as simple as that!
Many of you may be wondering: “Does less than 0.5 grams of trans fats really matter?” The answer is YES. This hidden trans fat can add up quickly, especially if you eat several servings of multiple foods containing less than 0.5 grams a serving. For instance a serving size of coffee creamer is 1 Tbsp. I know several people who fill 1/3 of their mug with coffee creamer! A less than 0.5 gram trans fat containing snack cracker may have a serving size of 6 crackers. So if you eat half the box in one sitting, you better believe you are consuming a harmful amount of trans fats. Even though you will hear me (and most dietitians) preach “everything in moderation” it is truly best to avoid trans fats all together… at all costs. The good news is that they ARE avoidable and I’ve just taught you how to avoid them!
Now that I’ve probably just ruined the one thing that gets many of you out of bed in the morning, let’s talk alternatives: You can buy coffee that is already flavored: I have seen everything from hazelnut coffee to chocolate fudge caramel swirl brownie coffee. Drink your coffee black or switch to caffeinated tea. Flavor your coffee with coconut milk, almond milk, soy milk or cream. Add cinnamon, nutmeg or other spices and if you really can’t live without sweetened coffee creamer, there are coffee creamers on the market that are trans fat free. I know Nestle has a line called “natural bliss” because my mother-in-law uses it.
*tip: manufactured food products that often contain partially hydrogenated oils (aka trans fats) are as follows: snack chips and crackers, microwave popcorn, fried foods, baked goods that contain shortening, baking mixes, ready-made frosting, refrigerated dough (cookies, biscuits, pizza crust, cinnamon rolls, etc), creamer, margarine and shortening.*
TAKE AWAY MESSAGE: ALWAYS READ INGREDIENTS and look for partially hydrogenated oil! If you find it, safely return the product to the shelf and walk away.