Trans Fatty Acids
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | May 24, 2005

If there’s one topic that seems to be hot based on the questions we’ve received lately at Better Life, it’s trans fatty acids. As often happens, the Internet and news media focus on the most negative part of the story. Let’s try to give some perspective on this issue so you know the facts about trans fatty acids.

What are trans fatty acids (TFA)?
Essentially, TFAs are unsaturated fats that have had their chemical structure altered via a chemical process. Before I go further, here’s a short primer on fats.

Saturated fats are long chains of carbon molecules, each with two hydrogens attached; that’s where the name saturated comes from--they’re saturated with hydrogen. Saturated fats are typically found in animal products and tropical oils.

Unsaturated fats don’t have all their hydrogens but instead have double bonds between carbon atoms. Unsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils and in other foods such as cold-water fish. The problem is that they’re liquids at room temperature--not very practical when making refined products that don’t look oily or greasy.

The solution is hydrogenated vegetable oil. When the unsaturated vegetable oil is boiled under pressure with hydrogen molecules, the oil is hydrogenated and will mimic saturated fats. The vegetable oil can be partially hydrogenated or completely hydrogenated, depending on the use of the product.

In the process of saturating the vegetable oil, TFAs are formed. The cis form, which means the hydrogens are on the same side of the molecule, is natural to the vegetable oils. But formed in the hydrogenation process is a trans form where the hydrogens are on opposite sides.

What is often left out of the story is that TFAs occur naturally in nature as well. Ruminant animals such as cows and sheep can hydrogenate fats via bacteria in their rumen. Therefore, some TFAs are found in milk and dairy products as well as the meat of cows and sheep, although the types of TFAs vary. Animal feed can contain TFAs, so they can be incorporated into the animals’ meat that way as well.

Finally, frying foods at high temperatures in vegetable oils can also produce TFAs.

What’s the problem with TFAs?
Research has shown that regular consumption of TFAs increases LDL-cholesterol, decreases HDL-cholesterol, and increases triglycerides when compared to diets with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats (1). Because all of these trends in serum lipids are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, the concern is that those who consistently use TFAs in their diet will have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (2).

Interestingly, independent research has not demonstrated a direct relationship with TFA intake and cardiovascular disease. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but it hasn’t been proven in 20 years of research. For now, it’s guilt by association.

How do I know if a food contains TFAs?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has mandated that TFAs be included on Nutrition Labels beginning in January 2006, although some responsible manufacturers are putting them on labels now (3). Until then, you can get an idea by looking at the list of ingredients. If the food contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, it may contain TFAs. The further down on the ingredient list it appears, the fewer TFAs the food may contain.

Should I eliminate TFAs and all foods that contain them?
Unless you become a vegan--you eat no animal products in any form--that probably won’t happen, because even naturally formed foods can contain TFAs. The real question is should you be concerned about eating foods that contain TFAs? It really depends on your overall diet. For example, research has shown that changes in blood lipids occur when TFAs are more than 3% of your caloric intake. Unless most of your meals contain fried foods and foods that contain partially hydrogenated fatty acids--foods made from refined carbohydrates, such as crackers, cookies, and other sweets--you won’t exceed that amount of TFAs per day.

What we don’t know...
This is where the real problem exists. We really don’t know a whole lot about TFAs and their effects--we’ve alarmed the population about a problem that may or may not exist. I’m certainly not endorsing a high-TFA diet. But we really don’t know if someone who is at normal weight, exercises regularly, and is healthy will have his or her health impacted by occasionally eating TFAs.

And the big question is this: does TFA intake cause cardiovascular disease? It very well may so it’s prudent to proceed with caution, but it’s not cause for throwing the population into panic. The sky is neither falling nor raining TFAs.

Do we still consume too much dietary fat in the United States? There’s no question about it: we do.

Should manufacturers come up with alternatives to TFAs in processed foods? Absolutely.

Will reducing just the trans fatty acids in the diet make us healthier? That’s a relative question. People will probably be healthier than they were.

However, until we address the total diet and exercise problem, it’s a finger in the dike of poor health that’s ready to break. Keep your eye on the ball and don’t be distracted by these side issues. Cut your weight, quit smoking, exercise daily, boost your intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and use better quality fats most of the time. That’s the path to a healthier you: the better life way.

  1. Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition, and Allergies--Trans Fatty Acids. 2004. EFSA Journal 81:1-49.
  2. FDA Fact Sheet. What Every Consumer Should Know About Trans Fatty Acids. July 9, 2003
  3. Federal Register--68 FR 41433 July 11, 2003: Food Labeling: Trans Fatty Acids in Nutrition Labeling, Nutrient Content Claims, and Health Claims
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