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What is trans fat? And why should you care?

Read on to find out about the dangers of trans fat and how it went from the darling of modern food production to condemned villian

What went wrong with trans fat? Hydrogenation of vegetable oils was supposed to be a huge bonus for food manufacturers... and in fact it was! This modern invention gave them oils that were stable (didn't go rancid quickly) and maintained firmness through a range of temperatures.

What went wrong with trans fat? Hydrogenation of vegetable oils was supposed to be a huge bonus for food manufacturers... and in fact it was! This modern invention gave them oils that were stable (didn't go rancid quickly) and maintained firmness through a range of temperatures.

Why is trans fat harmful?

The consumption of it increases triglycerides, raises LDL ("bad" cholesterol), and lowers HDL ("good" cholesterol). It promotes inflammation and possibly thrombogenesis (clotting). Altered partially hydrogenated fats made from vegetable oils block utilization of essential fatty acids, thus causing many negative effects such as increased blood cholesterol, sexual dysfunction, and paralysis of the immune system. It should be avoided at all costs!

It took years of research and hard lobbying by a small group of dedicated researchers for the public and legislators to realize this and start taking action.

It has now come to be accepted fact that ingesting it contributes in a significant way to coronary heart disease.

If you are not convinced yet, read this description of how margarine and shortening are made. It may change your eating habits dramatically!

From The Skinny on Fats by Mary Enig, Ph.D.:

Hydrogenation: This is the process that turns polyunsaturates, normally liquid at room temperature, into fats that are solid at room temperature—margarine and shortening. To produce them, manufacturers begin with the cheapest oils—soy, corn, cottonseed or canola, already rancid from the extraction process—and mix them with tiny metal particles—usually nickel oxide. The oil with its nickel catalyst is then subjected to hydrogen gas in a high-pressure, high-temperature reactor. Next, soap-like emulsifiers and starch are squeezed into the mixture to give it a better consistency; the oil is yet again subjected to high temperatures when it is steam-cleaned. This removes its unpleasant odor. Margarine's natural color, an unappetizing grey, is removed by bleach. Dyes and strong flavors must then be added to make it resemble butter. Finally, the mixture is compressed and packaged in blocks or tubs and sold as a health food.

Read the label... but use your judgement!

Low fat does not equal 0 trans fat!
In North America, food manufacturers are required to list trans fat as an ingredient. However, in the United States, if a product contains less than 0.5 grams per serving, they can (and do) list it as 0%. In Canada this level can be up to 0.2 grams per serving, yet still be listed as 0%.

This amazing bit of legislative trickery leaves you susceptible to consuming trans fats even when you think you're not! This is especially hazardous if you consume a number of products that have 0% on the label so you think you are doing the right thing, when in fact, cumulatively you are consuming a fair amount.

If a product says partially hydrogenated or vegetable oil shortening on the label, you can assume it has trans fat and should be avoided.

As mentioned elsewhere on this site, one of your best defenses is to eat unprocessed, whole foods as much as possible.

Many cities are banning the use of trans fats in restaurants. But if your city is not one of these... be careful when eating out. Not just at fast food outlets either. Many restaurants use partially hydrogenated fats for cooking... thus you may be consuming it if you eat at any of these establishments.

Take charge of your health and ask before you order. If you don't hear an answer you like, leave and let them know why. Not only will you be protecting your health, you will start to deliver an important message to restaurants!

Common products where trans fats are found

This list, while not exhaustive and containing no brand names, does give you a good idea of the types of foods and products to be on the lookout for.

Fast foods:

  • fries
  • deep fried chicken (nuggets and whole chicken pieces)
  • deep fried desserts such as apple pie
  • pancakes and grilled sandwiches (from shortening or margarine on the grill)
  • spring roles

Baked goods:

  • commercial cookies, even the fresh baked variety
  • donuts have trans fats in the batter as well as being deep fried in trans fat laden oil
  • danishes
  • pies


  • stick margarine
  • tub margarine
  • vegetable shortening


  • cake mixes
  • muffin mixes
  • other baking mixes
  • pound cake

Frozen foods:

  • many meat pies
  • pizzas
  • waffles
  • fish sticks

Chips, crackers, and snacks:

  • fried products such as potato or corn chips
  • crackers
  • candy bars

Breakfast bars and cereals

  • granola and other "healthy" snack bars
  • many, many breakfast cereals contain trans fats... even the so-called healthy ones


  • non-dairy creamers
  • coffee flavoring
  • salad dressings
  • gravy mixes
  • microwave popcorn
  • instant coffee beverages

While there is a trend toward reducing trans fats in foods, manufacturers are still a long way from eliminating them. Your best defense is to be vigilant about checking labels. Another strategy is to do more home cooking and baking and to avoid, as much as possible, packaged processed foods.

See also Carbohydrates, Low Carb Diet, Dietary Fat: Good or Evil?,Heart Healthy Eating, and Was Atkins Right?

More and more research points to nutrition as the basis for good health and the cause of so much disease.

We believe we've been fed a lot of bad information about what's good for us and what's not.

We can't tell you what to eat, just make the strong suggestion that you do your own research, learn how politics, personal agendas and big business has created the climate that's lead to our sky rocketing rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other diseases.

Check out these blogs and podcasts for tons of additional information.
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