The vast majority of trans fats are vegetable oils that that have been transformed into solid fats, such as hard margarine and shortening. This is accomplished by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, a process that is known as hydrogenation. Foods that contain this hydrogenated oil have a longer shelf life and greater flavor stability. (Only a small number of trans fats are found naturally, primarily in animal-based foods.) And, trans fats, which are also known as partially hydrogenated oils or trans fatty acids, are found in a vast array of processed foods including baked goods, such as pie crusts, biscuits, and pizza dough; fried foods, such as French fries; candies; ready-to-eat frostings; crackers; and snack foods such as microwave popcorn. There are even trans fats in some dietary supplements. 1
In a trial published in 2014 in Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases, researchers from Columbia University Medical Center/New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City examined the association between intake of trans fats and levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) in the blood. The cohort consisted of 400 family members of patients who were hospitalized for cardiovascular disease; all the family members participated in a one-year randomized controlled primary prevention lifestyle intervention. During the baseline calculations, the researchers found “a significant positive correlation” between the intake of trans fats and LDL levels. They also learned that the majority of the participants were less than 65 years old, female, white, obese/overweight, and physically inactive. At the end of the year, the researchers found some of the participants had reduced their intake of trans fats. These participants had lower levels of LDL than the participants who continued to consume the same amount of trans fats. The researchers recommended that “healthcare providers should reinforce the beneficial impact of a healthy diet, and in particular modifications in trans fat intake on improving lipid profiles.” 2
In a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, evaluated the association between intake of trans fats and risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that grows in the body’s lymphatic system. The cohort consisted of 603 people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and 1,007 matched controls. The researchers learned that the intake of trans fats was “positively associated” with the overall risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. They concluded that “diets high in TFAs … were positively associated with NHL risk.” 4
In a study published in 2008 in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill reviewed the association between the consumptions of trans fats and the development of colorectal adenomas, polyps that may grow into colorectal cancer. The researchers used data from a cross-sectional investigation of 622 people who underwent complete colonoscopies, a procedure in which a physician, usually a gastroenterologist, views the entire large colon with a lighted instrument. Of these, 173 were cases and 449 were controls. When the researchers compared the participants who consumed the least amount of trans fats to those who consumed the most trans fats (an average of about 6.5 grams per day), the researchers found that the high consumers had a significantly greater number of colorectal adenomas. In fact, their risk increased by 86 percent. The researchers noted that “the prevalence of colorectal adenomas was positively associated with high trans-fatty acid consumption.” 5
In a study published in 2011 in PLoS ONE, researchers from Spain and the Netherlands investigated the relationship between the intake of different oils and the risk of depression. The cohort consisted of 5,038 men and 7,021 women, with a mean age at recruitment of 37.5 years. During a follow-up period of 6.1 years, researchers identified 657 new cases of depression. The researchers found an association between intake of trans fats and a “higher risk” for depression. And, the risk was statistically significant. “The magnitude of this association was robust and persisted after several degrees of control for confounding and several sensitivity analyses.” 7
For decades, a seemingly limitless number of food products contained trans fats. And, most people consumed them. In the years before mandatory labeling, it was usually impossible to know what type of oil was used to make those scrumptious blueberry muffins or those mouth-watering potato chips. But, there are also other reasons that people gravitate toward eating foods with trans fats. Trans fats are often found in fast foods, which are relatively inexpensive and convenient. Foods with trans fats cost significantly less than foods with a good quality oil, such as extra virgin olive oil. And, foods with trans fats, especially those that contain sugar and salt, tend to be tasty, hard to resist, and alluring to consumers, particularly those who are really hungry.
Still, making these changes is not an easy process. It is not uncommon for “countries, states and cities [to] lack the political will to introduce the necessary legislation.” Generally, there is opposition from the food and agriculture industries. In addition, different government departments and/or agencies may attempt to control or disrupt the process. The article mentioned what happened in Cleveland, Ohio. The leadership of the city introduced legislation to ban trans fats. But, the city’s effort was blocked by the state government. The city sued the state government and won. Trans fats are banned in Cleveland. 8
In a 2014 article in Scientific American, Walter Willett, a Harvard-based physician who also earned a doctoral degree in public health, noted that the inventors of trans fats earned a 1912 Nobel Prize for their discovery. Obviously, at the time it was believed to be a wonderful addition to the diet. Decades later, trans fats were found to have a litany of negative consequences. And, the effort to reduce their use has resulted in marked change. Willett estimated that by 2012 about “75 percent of trans fats had been removed from the U. S. food supply.” Still, the 25 percent of trans fats still in the food supply cause an estimated 7,000 premature deaths each year. Change is happening, but too slowly for many. “We should not get too carried away,” Willett said. “It is sobering that it has taken more than a century for this moment to arrive.” 9
Though it may be difficult, try to preplan your meals and snacks. Choose selections that do not contain trans fats. Be very careful when ordering food from fast food establishments. Fast foods frequently contain trans fats. Make substitutions in recipes. For example, use butter instead of margarine in piecrusts. Find local restaurants and bakeries that refuse to use trans fats. Patronize those businesses. Let them know that you support their opposition to trans fats. In the beginning, these changes may be a little challenging; in time, they will become relatively easy to follow.
1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, www.fda.gov.
2. M. Garshick, H. Mochari-Greenberger, and L. Mosca, “Reduction in Dietary Trans Fat Intake Is Associated with Decreased LDL Particle Number in a Primary Prevention Population,” Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases 24 (2014): 100-106.
3. Sonia Vega-López, Nirupa R. Matthan, Lynne M. Ausman et al., “Substitution of Vegetable Oil for Partially-Hydrogenated Fat Favorably Alters Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors in Moderately Hypercholesterolemic Postmenopausal Women,” Atherosclerosis 207 (2009): 208-12.
4. Bridget Charbonneau, Helen M. O’Connor, Alice H. Wang et al., “Trans Fatty Acid Intake Is Associated with Increased Risk and n3 Fatty Acid Intake with Reduced Risk of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma,” Journal of Nutrition 143, no. 5 (2013): 672-81.
5. Lisa C. Vinikoor, Jane C. Schroeder, Robert C. Millikan et al., “Consumption of Trans-Fatty Acid and Its Association with Colorectal Adenomas,” American Journal of Epidemiology 168, no. 3 (2008): 289-97.
6. Jung-Ha Kim, Chung-Mo Nam, Jae-Won Kim et al., “Relationship Between Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Trans Fatty Acids Intake in Female Adolescents,” Acta Paediatrica 101, no. 9 (2012): e431-e433.
7. Almudena Sánchez-Villegas, Lisa Verberne, Jokin De Irala et al., “Dietary Fat Intake and the Risk of Depression: The SUN Project,” PLoS ONE 6, no. 1 (2011): e16268.
8. Shauna M. Downs, Anne Marie Thow, and Stephen R. Leeder, “The Effectiveness of Policies for Reducing Dietary Trans Fat: A Systematic Review of the Evidence,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 91 (2013): 262-269H.
9. Walter Willett, “The Case for Banning Trans Fats,” Scientific American 310, no. 3 (2014): 13.
Barcelos, R. C. S., L. T. Vey, H. J. Segat et al. “Cross-Generational Trans Fat Intake Exacerbates UV Radiation-Induced Damage in Rat Skin.” Food and Chemical Toxicology 69 (2014): 38-45.
Charbonneau, Bridget, Helen M. O’Connor, Alice H. Wang et al. “Trans Fatty Acid Intake Is Associated with Increased Risk and n3 Fatty Acid Intake with Reduced Risk of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.” Journal of Nutrition 143, no. 5 (2013): 672-81.
Downs, Shauna M., Anne Marie Thow, and Stephen R. Leeder. “The Effectiveness of Policies for Reducing Dietary Trans Fat: A Systematic Review of the Evidence.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 91 (2013): 262-269H.
Garshick, M., H. Mochari-Greenberger, and L. Mosca. “Reduction in Dietary Trans Fat Intake Is Associated with Decreased LDL Particle Number in a Primary Prevention Population.” Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases 24 (2014): 100-106.
Golomb, Beatrice A., Marcella A. Evans, Halbert L. White, and Joel E. Dimsdale. “Trans Fat Consumption and Aggression.” PLoS ONE 7, no. 3 (2012): e32175.
Hu, Jinfu, Carlo La Vecchia, Margaret de Groh et al. “Dietary Transfatty Acids and Cancer Risk.” European Journal of Cancer Prevention 20, no. 6 (2011): 530-38.
Kiage, James N., Peter D. Merrill, Suzanne E. Judd et al. “Intake of Trans Fat and Incidence of Stroke in the REasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Cohort.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 99, no. 5 (2014): 1071-76.
Kim, Jung-Ha, Chung-Mo Nam, Jae-Won Kim et al. “Relationship Between Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Trans Fatty Acids Intake in Female Adolescents.” Acta Paediatrica 101, no. 9 (2012): e431-e433.
Kris-Etherton, Penny M., Michael Lefevre, Ronald P. Mensink et al. “Trans Fatty Acid Intakes and Food Sources in the U.S. Population: NHANES 1999-2002.” Lipids 47 (2012): 931-40.
Sánchez-Villegas, Almudena, Lisa Verberne, Jokin De Irala et al. “Dietary Fat Intake and the Risk of Depression: The SUN Project.” PLoS ONE 6, no. 1 (2011): e16268.
Vinikoor, Lisa C., Jane C. Schroeder, Robert C. Millikan et al. 2008. “Consumption of Trans-Fatty Acid and Its Association with Colorectal Adenomas.” American Journal of Epidemiology 168, no. 3 (2008): 289-97.
Willett, Walter. “The Case for Banning Trans Fats.” Scientific American 310, no. 3 (2014): 13.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. www.fda.gov .