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Know the facts

The Trans Fat Debate

By Beth Bence Reinke, MS, RD
Guest Writer Across the nation, "ban trans fat!" has become a battle cry. So far, the state of California and several cities, including New York City and Philadelphia, are prohibiting or phasing out trans fat in restaurants. Food manufacturers and fast food chains have swapped out trans fat or continue testing to find alternatives to hydrogenated oils.

With trans fats being purged from the food supply, a new question arises: What is being used instead and is it better for you? Since many foods still contain a bit of trans fat, let's review its background first. Then we'll discuss trans fat alternatives.

Trans Fat Fundamentals

Most people don't realize that there are two kinds of trans fats. A natural form of trans fat is found in tiny amounts in red meat and dairy products, but it is not harmful to humans. In fact, a study done on rats suggests it may even be good for us. This is not the trans fat everyone is talking about.

The bad trans fat is a synthetic form created by an industrial process called hydrogenation. Hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, which changes the shape of the fat molecules, causing the oil to become more solid. Make no mistake about it – this trans fat is an unnatural substance that is dangerous to health. Is it any surprise that when we tamper with God's perfect design, things go haywire?

Why are trans fats bad?
Research shows that trans fats increase the bad LDL cholesterol and decrease the good HDL cholesterol, which raises risk of heart disease and stroke. A recent study suggests trans fats harm the cardiovascular system by triggering inflammation in blood vessels. In addition, trans fat may increase risk for cancers of the breast and prostate.

With trans fat, zero doesn't always mean zero
Since 2006 FDA regulations require trans fat to be listed on labels. However, seeing "0 grams trans fat" on the nutrition panel does not guarantee the food is trans fat-free. Labeling laws allow foods with up to ~1/2 gram trans fat per serving to say "trans fat 0 grams."  

So here's what you need to do. If the food says "0 grams trans fat" on the nutrition panel, check the ingredients list. If you see the word "hydrogenated" anywhere on that list, there is sometrans fat in the food, up to 1/2 gram per serving. Munching multiple servings of foods that contain 1/4 gram or 1/2 gram trans fat per serving can add up to harmful levels.

How much do Americans eat?
In 2005 the FDA estimated trans fat intake to be about 5.8 grams per day (about 2.6 percent of calories) for Americans age twenty and older. [1] Since manufacturers have removed trans fat from many products, that number is probably lower today.

One thing we've learned is that it only takes a tiny amount of trans fat to adversely affect health. In a study of 120,000 female nurses, researchers found that replacing 2 percent of their calories with trans fat doubled their risk of heart disease! But thankfully the study authors say it works the other way, too: replacing 2 percent of calories from trans fat with healthful unsaturated fats cuts your risk for heart disease in half. [2]

How much trans fat is okay?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting total trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of our total daily calories, which means less than 2 grams per day for many people. Since most of us get that much from naturally occurring trans fat in red meat and dairy, we need to cut trans fat from other foods to zero. That means checking every ingredient list and bypassing foods that declare any hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils, even if it states "trans fat 0 g" on the nutrition panel.

If trans fat goes, what comes in?
Food manufacturers have scrambled to find alternative fats that will impart the same characteristics and flavors to foods that trans fats did. Products from cookies to breaded fish were reformulated to decrease or omit hydrogenated oils. Many fast food chains have even switched to trans fat-free vegetable oils in their frying vats.

Here are a Few TRANS FAT ALTERNATIVES Currently in Use

1) Saturated vegetable fats. Tropical oils like palm, palm kernel, and coconut oils contain saturated fats even though they're from plants. They have a creamy texture that works well in crackers, cookies, and other commercial baked goods.

2) Oil blends. Other stable plant oils such as corn, peanut, soy, sunflower, and canola are combined in varying amounts. These oil blends contain mostly unsaturated fats.

3) Interesterified (IE) fats. These are created by a chemical or enzymatic process done on liquid oils to unnaturally rearrange the fatty acids in the molecules. This "interesterification" helps the fat stay solid at room temperature so it provides stability for margarines, shortening and baked goods. [3]

In creating interesterified fats, people are messing around with God's design again. We know where that got us with trans fats. Experts wonder if the structural differences in IE fats will cause changes in the way our bodies metabolize them and lead to health issues. So far, study results suggest IE fats may raise blood glucose and lower good HDL cholesterol. Time and further research will shed light on the healthfulness of IE fats. [4]

To Avoid Trans Fats and IE Fats

1. Read nutrition labels and ingredients lists on baked goods and processed foods. Steer clear of trans fats and IE fats by avoiding the following words on the ingredient label: "hydrogenated" or "interesterified." Truly, your best bet is to buy whole foods and cook or bake from scratch.

2. Check restaurant Web sites before eating out to see what kind of fats they use, especially for deep-frying.

Whether trans fats will completely disappear is anyone's guess. And the future may bring new fat alternatives. For overall good health, avoid trans and IE fats and watch your total fat intake - especially saturated fat, which affects your risk for heart disease and stroke.

The American Heart Association has an online tool that calculates your daily calorie needs, recommendations for total fat intake, and limits for bad fats (trans and saturated.) Check it out at: Just plug in your height, weight, gender, age, and activity level.


[1] "Questions and Answers about Trans Fat Nutrition Labeling." U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements. Updated September 6, 2005. Available at

[2] Hu, FB; Stampfer, MJ, Manson, JE, Rimm, E, Colditz, GA, Rosner, BA, Hennekens, CH, Willett, WC (1997). "Dietary fat intake and the risk of coronary heart disease in women." New England Journal of Medicine, 337 (21):1491-1499.

[3] "Food Fats and Oils," Ninth Edition, 2006. Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils, Washington, D.C. Available at

[4] "New Fat, Same Old Problem with An Added Twist? Replacement for Trans Fat Raises Blood Sugar in Humans," Science Daily (January 18, 2007.)

Beth Bence ReinkeBeth Bence Reinke is a registered dietitian who writes about food, nutrition, and health topics. She is a mom of two sons and the author of numerous magazine articles for adults and children. Beth and her husband have been CBN partners since 1998. Visit her at .

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