The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June took the final step to ban partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) or trans fat when they announced that food manufacturers have three years to remove them completely from processed foods.
Addressing the importance of the ban, Rishipal Bansode, PhD, research scientist with NCA&T Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies at the NC Research Campus (NCRC), explained, “The National Academy of Science reports that synthetic trans fat has no benefits to humans, and they are directly related to cardiovascular disease.”
He emphasized that the human body cannot metabolize synthetic trans fat because of a chemical change in the structure of the fat that occurs during processing.
“Structurally speaking trans fat is just another fatty acid,” explained Bansode, who researches plant-based compounds called polyphenols and their ability to block fat absorption from foods. “Food manufacturers invented a process of hydrogenating polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are normally considered good for us, in order to make it solid at room temperature.”
Bansode acknowledged that there are trans fats in nature that are found at very low levels. “But the structure is completely different from synthetic trans fats,” he said. “Research is ongoing to determine if it is unhealthy or if there are any benefits from natural trans fats.”
Caution: Trans Fats Inside
The use of trans fat started in the early 1900s when food manufacturers found that they could more cost effectively manufacture and stored them than animal fats. The use of trans fat in commercially produced foods increased over the decades peaking in the 1980s when a movement against saturated fats drove food manufacturers to trans fats.
In 2006, the FDA mandated food companies add trans fat to nutrition labels. Since then, according to the FDA, consumption of trans fats dropped by 78 percent, and many food manufactures have reformulated their products to reduce or eliminate trans fat. Bansode cautions that labeling is not a fool proof approach to avoiding them. By law, companies can include up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving size in foods and still label their products as containing zero grams of trans fat.
“The American Health Association recommends consumption of zero trans fats. Eating two or more grams a day is considered unsafe,” he emphasized. “If you go to a super market and pick up a product with zero trans fat and have multiple servings of that food, you are basically hitting the danger mark even though you thought you were making the right choice by going with a non-trans fat food.”
How to Avoid Trans Fat
To avoid trans fat, Bansode recommends that people check the ingredient list of the processed foods they enjoy. If anything hydrogenated is included, especially in the beginning of the ingredient list, avoid it. Remember that trans fat is often used in commercially baked goods. When eating out, ask which type of oil the restaurant uses. Try to consume foods cooked in unsaturated fats like canola, olive or other vegetable-based oils. To curb snack cravings, stick with whole fruits and vegetables and homemade treats.
To learn more about healthy versus unhealthy fats, read the article What are lipids? also featuring Dr. Bansode.
The Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies at the North Carolina Research Campus is administered by the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. Learn more.