The Truth About Trans Fats: From Hero to “Zero”

By TWU Intern Student Amber Olson


Unmasking the Notorious Culprits in Processed Food

Let’s talk about trans-fatty acids – better known as ‘trans fats’. What exactly are they, where do they come from, and why the notorious reputation? While trace amounts can be found naturally in ruminants like cows and sheep, they more commonly reside in industrial-produced processed foods. Here, a fascinating process takes place: hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, transforming it from a liquid into a solid. And this led to what we call ‘partially hydrogenated’ oil (PHO). But why the bad rap? Join me as we unravel the mysteries of these elusive trans fats and explore why they might be causing a bit of a stir in our favorite snacks.

The ”Hero” Behind the Crust
Trans fats made their debut in the culinary scene in the1950s, gaining popularity for their unique quality – they’re solid at room temperature. And why does that matter? Picture the early 20th century, when baking pies and cooking with butter and lard were the norms, trans fats quickly became the new kitchen superhero by prolonging the shelf life and enhancing the texture of baked goods. This not only revolutionized pie crusts but found their way into deep fryers and baked goods across the board. While they worked wonders for our favorite treats, it’s crucial to note that PHOs aren’t a natural part of the human diet. And here’s where the problem lies.

The Fallen Hero

While they were first believed to be safe – and even a healthier alternative to animal fat – humans and animal studies in the 1970s and 1980s suggested a connection between trans fats and heart disease. Surprisingly, reviews commissioned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) during that time concluded that there was no substantial harm associated with PHOs and trans fats. However, as we stepped into the early 1990s, extensive clinical and epidemiological research provided conclusive evidence that industrially produced trans fats were indeed linked to heart disease. Similar to saturated fat, they found that trans fat raises levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the ‘bad’ cholesterol that contributes to heart disease. What sets trans fat apart, is its additional effect of lowering high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the ‘good’ cholesterol associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.

The Fight for TRANSparency

Throughout the 1990s, health advocates petitioned the FDA to include trans fats on nutrition labels. Fueled by mounting scientific evidence of trans fats’ health risks, these efforts gained traction. In 2003, the FDA finalized its rule mandating trans fat labeling on packaged foods, effective from 2006. This marked a pivotal moment in enhancing public health awareness and food transparency. Ten years later, in 2013, the FDA determined that PHOs, a primary source of trans fats, were no longer considered “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Subsequently, in 2015, the FDA officially banned the use of PHOs in food, providing a three-year grace period for compliance. By 2018, the compliance deadline marked the successful removal of these fats from the food supply, contributing to improved public health outcomes related to cardiovascular diseases.

What You Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You… Right?

And everyone lived happily ever after, right? Well, as with most things, there was a catch. You see, a clever loophole emerged, which allowed trans fats to linger inconspicuously. That’s right. The FDA allows companies to declare ‘0 grams of trans fat’ on a product as long as the content is below 0.5 grams per serving. This flexibility can indeed make it easy for companies to manipulate portion sizes to stay below the threshold. So, even if it says ‘0’, there may still be trans fat hiding in there.

Bite-Sized Betrayal

Why is this particularly dangerous? Well, here’s the plot twist that often goes unnoticed: many consumers end up indulging in more than the recommended serving size. This means that savoring an extra serving or two on the days you’re feeling, we’ll say, more than peckish, can quickly elevate your trans fat intake, surpassing the advised daily limit of 1%. And while this labeling practice is entirely legal within the regulatory framework, many argue that it’s misleading and raises concerns about whether the current regulations align with ethical standards.

Navigating the Trans Fat Terrain

Having unveiled the nuances of trans fat labeling, let’s shift our focus to an essential skill: how to detect trans fats in your food products. Begin by checking the ingredient list for the presence of ‘partially hydrogenated oils’, a telltale sign of trans fats. Again, don’t be misled by ‘0 grams of trans fat’ claims on the label. And be mindful of serving sizes, as companies may manipulate them to meet the 0.5-gram threshold per serving. In general, try to avoid or limit commercially baked goods, fried foods, packaged snacks, vegetable shortening, etc. This knowledge can help you make informed choices and avoid the hidden pitfalls of trans fats.

Ditch the Old, Embrace the New

Lastly, consider swapping out PHOs for alternatives that offer health benefits. Opt for oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), such as safflower oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, and incorporate fatty fish, walnuts, and seeds into your diet. Embrace oils abundant in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) like canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, as well as those derived from nuts and avocados. These alternatives contribute to better heart health and also offer diversity in your culinary endeavors.\




  1. Nutrition: Trans fat. Published May 3, 2018.
  2. Artificial Trans Fat: A Timeline. Center for Science in the Public Interest.
  3. Nutrition C for FS and A. Small Entity Compliance Guide: Trans Fatty Acids in Nutrition Labeling, Nutrient Content Claims, and Health Claims. Published September 27, 2022. Accessed January 16, 2024.

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