Although Crisco appeared on American grocery store shelves as early as 1911, the popularity of hydrogenated vegetable oils, or trans fats, including margarine and shortening, soared between the 1950s and the 1980s, as the demonization of saturated fats consumed the medical establishment. To fight heart disease and lower cholesterol, food manufacturers were advised to replace the saturated fat in their products with the supposedly healthier type of fat – trans fat, or hydrogenated vegetable oil. Unfortunately, our health suffered as trans fats flooded our food products, and traditional foods such as butter were replaced by margarine during this disastrous dietary experiment.
What Are Trans Fats?
Trans fats are made through “hydrogenation” – hence their technical name, “partially hydrogenated oil.” The hydrogenation process converts a liquid oil into a shelf-stable solid fat through adding hydrogen atoms to the oil. This transformation allowed home cooks and food companies to remove lard and butter from recipes and substitute the a non-animal-based fat that offered the same spreadability, texture, and shelf life that real foods such as butter and lard provided. Finally, in the late 1990s, research revealed the dangers of trans fats and public awareness and FDA labeling requirements followed in the early 2000s.
Dangers of Trans Fats
Ironically, trans fats are far more dangerous to heart health than the saturated fats they were designed to replace:
- Trans fats raise the LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and lower the HDL (“good” cholesterol).
- Through increasing the production of pro-inflammatory prostaglandin E2 hormones, trans fats increase overall inflammation in the body, contributing to arthritis, allergies and auto-immune disorders.
- Trans fats decrease insulin sensitivity, which can lead to blood sugar disregulation and type 2 diabetes.
- Through raising levels of apolipoprotein A, trans fats increase cardiovascular health risks.
How to Avoid Trans Fats
The best way to avoid trans fats is to avoid processed foods, fast food restaurants, and anything deep-fried. Whether processed food contains trans fats or processed seed oils (such as canola, safflower, soybean or sunflower), neither are good choices for your health. Take the time to read the label on any food product you eat – check the sugar content and check the type of oil or fat used. “Partially hydrogenated oil” means trans fats. Most chips, crackers, cookies, pastries and fast-food products contain unhealthy oils – because of the labeling guidelines, however, you may not realize that you are getting trans fats: the FDA allows food manufacturers to label a product trans fat free if it contains .49 grams of trans fats or less, per portion. Depending on your consumption of processed food and your portion size, it is difficult to know how much trans fats you are getting or if a product even contains trans fats or not, since the labeling can be misleading. Reading labels is essential – as is avoiding packaged foods, especially baked or fried products.