The ugly truth about trans-fatty acids

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Be careful the next time you dine out. Your food could be laced with trans fats that could give you a heart attack.

Be careful the next time you dine out. Your food could be laced with trans fats that could give you a heart attack.

Hungry? How about a big serving of French fries or some glazed doughnuts with your favorite filling? Or maybe a huge slice of that tempting chocolate cake topped with creamy icing? Or perhaps you prefer a bucket of fried chicken that comes with extra thick gravy? Afterwards, you can wash it all down with a hot cup of coffee mixed with that delicious creamer.

These mouth-watering dishes may make you rush to the nearest fast food chain but they can also kill you. The reason: they may contain heaps of trans fats that are dangerous to your health.

Trans fats or trans-fatty acids are the new villains in the medical community because they are considered the worst type of fat. Doctors say they spell double trouble for your heart because they raise the level of low density lipoprotein (LDL) – the bad cholesterol that clogs arteries and increases your chances of getting heart disease. Trans fats also lower high density lipoprotein (HDL) – the good cholesterol that gets rid of excess cholesterol. This deadly combination puts you at risk for a heart attack.

Major risk factor
“A high LDL cholesterol level is a major risk factor for heart disease. If your LDL is too high, over time, it can cause atherosclerosis, a dangerous accumulation of fatty deposits on the walls of your arteries. These deposits — called plaques — can reduce blood flow through your arteries. If the arteries that supply your heart with blood (coronary arteries) are affected, you may have chest pain and other symptoms of coronary artery disease,” according to doctors at WebMD.


“If plaques tear or rupture, a blood clot may form — blocking the flow of blood or breaking free and plugging an artery downstream. If blood flow to a part of your heart stops, you’ll have a heart attack. If blood flow to a part of your brain stops, a stroke occurs,” they added.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that avoiding trans fats could prevent up to 20,000 cases of coronary heart disease and 7,000 deaths yearly in the United States alone. However, that’s easier said than done since trans fats are found almost everywhere.

Baked and fried foods
Most baked goods like crackers, cookies, muffins, pizza, cakes, and icings have trans fats. So do fried foods like doughnuts, French fries and chicken. Margarine and shortening may also have trans fats.

Small amounts of trans fats are likewise found in dairy products and meat, including beef and lamb, but scientists have yet to determine whether these naturally occurring substances are as deadly as the artificial ones. What is known is that the trans fats in processed foods are more harmful.

Since the 1950s, manufacturers have used trans fats because of their many benefits. Food stays fresh longer, shelf life is extended, food texture is enhanced, and (ironically) food becomes less greasy. Trans fats are made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil – a process called hydrogenation.

Easy to use
“Companies like using trans fats in their foods because they’re easy to use, inexpensive to produce and last a long time. Trans fats give foods a desirable taste and texture. Many restaurants and fast food outlets use trans fats to deep-fry foods because oils with trans fats can be used many times in commercial fryers,” revealed the American Heart Association (AHA).

For some reason, hydrogenation increases cholesterol than other types of fat. Scientists believe this type of oil is difficult to digest and the body identifies it as saturated fat—another bad guy that raises blood cholesterol levels.

Between the two, however, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) together with the Institute of Medicine and the AHA believe that saturated fats are a lesser evil compared to trans fats. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that advises the United States and Canadian governments on product labelling said “trans-fatty acids are not essential and provide no known benefit to human health.”

In 1999, the US FDA told food manufacturers to reveal the amount of trans fats in nutrition labels. However, since so little was known about trans fats at that time, that didn’t become a requirement until 2006.

Not safe
To protect the public, the FDA wants trans fats to be banned but that may take a while considering their wide use in food manufacturing. For now, the agency has determined that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs)—the main source of trans fats in processed foods—are not safe and it may soon prevent companies from using these oils without FDA approval.

“Despite this concern, the NAS dietary recommendations have not recommended the elimination of trans fat from the diet. This is because trans fat is naturally present in many animal foods in trace quantities and its removal from ordinary diets might introduce undesirable side effects and nutritional imbalances if proper nutritional planning is not undertaken. The NAS has, therefore, recommended that trans fatty acid consumption be as low as possible while consuming a nutritionally adequate diet,” said Wikipedia.

As a result of the FDA action and increased consumer awareness about the detrimental effects of trans fats, some food manufacturers have minimized or totally eliminated their use.

In the United States, Tiburon, California became the first American city where restaurants voluntarily cook with trans fat-free oils. Trans fats have been banned in Philadelphia, and Nassau County in New York.

Meanwhile, California, New York City, Baltimore, and Montgomery County, Maryland, have restricted the use of trans fats in food service establishments. These places are not allowed to sell or distribute foods, and use ingredients containing more than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. The FDA reported that New York City has done a commendable job since almost 98 percent of restaurants were no longer using artificial trans fat since 2008.

Growing movement
The move to limit or phase out the use of trans fats is spreading to others countries as well. To date, Iceland, Denmark and Switzerland have banned the use of trans fats.

“The good news is trans fats are showing up less in food, especially food on grocery store shelves. If you eat out a lot, however, be aware that some restaurants continue to use trans fats. Trans fats are sometimes a part of the oil restaurants use to fry food. A large serving of French fries at some restaurants can contain 5 grams or more of trans fats,” revealed WebMD.

What about the Philippines where heart disease is a top killer and people love dining out? I tried contacting the people at Jollibee, McDonald’s and Mister Donut among others to get their comments on the issue but it was like facing a blank wall. I was referred from one person to another until I ended up talking to no one. Some got my mobile number but never returned my calls. I wanted to know whether these establishments used trans fats in cooking but I never got an answer.

The only person who entertained my call was Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go of the Bureau of Food and Drugs. Unfortunately, his words were not encouraging.

“I’ll be frank with you. We have no data on that. I agree that we should monitor the use of trans fats in foods but we cannot do it yet. Once the Food and Nutrition Research Institute tells us that the levels are high, we can regulate this. But our focus is on other things right now. We have the intention to regulate this later but we are tied up with something else,” he said.

So where does that leave Pinoys who love fried chicken and other fast food fare? While waiting for local health authorities to look into the matter and food establishments to dish out healthy meals, consumers can avoid trans fats by making wise food choices and reading food labels. Be wary of products that contain PHOs. Surprisingly, those with fully or completely hydrogenated oils don’t have trans fats.

Not determined
In the event you consume trans fats, is there a safe level so you won’t suffer later? Unfortunately, this has not been determined. However, it pays to limit your intake of trans fats.

“In the United States, food nutrition labels don’t list a Daily Value for trans fat because it’s unknown what an appropriate level of trans fat is, other than it should be low. The AHA recommends that no more than 1 percent of your total daily calories be trans fat. If you consume 2,000 calories a day, that works out to 2 grams of trans fat or less, or about 20 calories,” said doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Be alert
Don’t be misled by products that say they have 0 grams trans fat. In the United States, this means the food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat. That may not be much but it can add up if you eat multiple servings of foods that contain the same amount.

To be on the safe side, look for products that list monounsaturated fat (found in olive, peanut and canola oils) or polyunsaturated fat in their labels. When dining out, ask what oils are used in cooking. Don’t totally eliminate fat in the diet since this is required by the body.

“What should the average consumer do if he or she picks up a favorite food and sees that it has trans fat on the label? The best thing to do is to consider the amounts of saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fat. Choose the product that has the lowest combined amount of these nutrients,” the FDA concluded.

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