Healthy Habits: Avoiding Trans Fats

Source: Cheryl Tallman and Joan Ahlers

Over the past several years, trans fats have been the subject of much research and debate. Trans fats are present in foods that contain an ingredient that is “hydrogenated.” In the 1950s food scientists created the hydrogenation process in an effort to replace expensive butter with a solid stick form of liquid vegetable oil. In the development of this process, they also found that hydrogenation improved the shelf life on products. The processed food industry embraced this discovery, because they could improve their profits by shipping larger volumes of foods to grocery stores and let them sit on the shelves longer.

Hydrogenation is great for food companies but the story is different for the consumer. According the US Food and Drug and Administration, “hydrogenated” or “partially Hydrogenated” ingredients contain trans fats. After many years of research, trans fats have been linked to raising LDL cholesterol levels (the bad kind) and lowering HDL cholesterol levels (the good kind). Trans fats are also linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

Up until January 2006, avoiding trans fats has required “reading the fine print list of ingredients” on labels. Fortunately, for consumers, the FDA is making it easier for us to identify culprit foods. As of January 2006 all foods containing trans fats must be properly labeled to notify consumers.

This labeling makes it much easier for the consumers, but there is one thing you need to know. An item that advertises “Contains 0 trans fats” may be misleading. The FDA allows food companies to use this claim if there a small amount trans fats. If you wish to avoid trans fats entirely, stay away from all foods that contain “shortening” or “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils as an ingredient.

Cheryl Tallman and Joan Ahlers are
sisters, the mothers of five children and founders of Fresh Baby. Visit
them at and subscribe to their Fresh Ideas
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Wild Oats, and Whole Foods Markets.