When you look at popular media, there always seems to be a new food or nutrient being demonised… fats, carbohydrate, sugar, fruit – the list goes on. However, when it comes to fats, the feedback I’ve had is that the general public are confused. Which types are ok, and which are not? Fats come in our foods in different types, and these can have differing effects on your health. So I thought I would cover the main types of fat in a mini-series on my blog, and then round it off with a summary blog at the end. Today’s blog will focus on trans fats – what’s the problem with them?
What are they and where are they found?
Artificial trans fats are often referred to as ‘partially hydrogenated fats’. They are formed when oil goes through a process called hydrogenation, which hardens the oil, making it more solid. Artificial trans fats are often found in products such as cakes, biscuits, pastries, pies, hard margarines, take aways and fried food. They are often added to increase shelf life. Many manufacturers have now removed trans fats from their products. An example of this is reduced fat spreads – these no longer contain trans / hydrogenated fats. However, popular media and butter supporters will still quote this unfounded explanation as a reason not to have spreads / margarines. Some foods contain small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats, e.g. dairy products, beef and lamb.
There are no legal requirements for food manufacturers to label the fact that their products contain trans fats on the nutritional information table – so you need to scout the ingredients list to be sure.
Why should they be avoided?
Consuming trans fats can increase your cholesterol levels, and high cholesterol levels can increase your risk of conditions like heart disease and stroke. In the UK, the intake of trans fats is very low, so the focus is more on reducing saturated fats (we know a high intake of saturated fats can also lead to high cholesterol levels). I will cover saturated fats in my next post.
Practical tips to reduce your trans fat intake
- Avoid products containing trans fats, or ‘partially hydrogenated fats’ – you can do this by checking the ingredients level for ‘hydrogenated fats’ or ‘hydrogenated vegetable oils’
- Choose reduced fat dairy products (remember to watch their sugar content too)
- Eat less products which are likely to contain trans fats, like cakes, biscuits and pastries
- Reduce your intake of fried foods
- Use liquid oil for cooking at home (rather than things like butter, lard and ghee)
For more information, the British Dietetic Association has a useful fact sheet that can be downloaded for free.