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What are Trans Fatty Acids?

Por Eleazar Lara-Pantin, MD, MSc.* -

Most food ingredient and nutrient terminology is pretty simple and straight forward.  However some is more complicated, or uses scientific vocabulary, and is a little confusing to the average consumer.  It is important to become familiar with these words and terms, so that you can make the best decisions when grocery shopping and planning healthy meals. 

Trans fats or trans fatty acids are fat components that became a topic highlighted by the media in the early 2000’s.  This is because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was discussing adding information about the content of this fatty acid to all food labels. The decision was made that effective January 1, 2006 it would be added to the required information on the Nutrition Facts label and some Supplement Facts labels. 

Providing information to consumers on food product labeling was deemed important because trans fatty acids can contribute to increasing blood cholesterol levels, in particular LDL (or "bad") cholesterol levels, which is the one that contributes most to clogging the arteries of the heart, and leading to heart attack and stroke.

According to many experts, trans fatty acids are worse than saturated fatty acids in terms of their capacity to damage arteries. They are the result of a process the food industry uses, called “hydrogenation” which is the conversion of vegetable oils into solids.

The problem became more substantial when it was discovered that the most commonly used shortenings worldwide were made of palm and coconut oils, which are rich in saturated acids. These acids are what cause the shortenings to remain solid at room temperature. The food industry was forced to remove palm and coconut oil-based shortenings from the market because people were no longer buying them. They decided to “hydrogenate” less harmful liquid oils (like soybean and corn oil) to create solids like margarine and vegetable shortening.

The hydrogenation process is also used to give particular characteristics to certain oils that remain in liquid form. Many of those are used in the production of fast food, such as french fries and doughnuts.

The Benefits of the Trans Fat Labeling Regulations

The law requiring food manufacturers to include trans fatty acid content information on Nutrition Facts and some Supplement Facts labels benefits the population by making large food companies join the movement to limit the amount of harmful fats and sugars used in their products. It has also provoked an increased effort to improve the quality of the fat used in food manufacturing.

If you are going to used processed products that contain fat, you should try to choose those products that contain less total fat, but most specifically, saturated fats and trans fatty acids. It is now up to the food industry to comply with the FDA regulations, and inform us of the exact amount of these ingredients their products contain.

*Dr. Lara-Pantin, a nutrition specialist, is Vice President of Product Development for DrTango, Inc.


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