Good Fat Gone Bad… The Skinny on Trans-Fatty Acids

Walk down any food aisle and pick up a package of product and read the nutrition label. For the most part, the labeling system is rather easy to read and understand. But confusion sometimes comes in the area of fats and carbohydrates. Consumers expect that the information presented on the labels by food manufacturers is accurate and concise.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the governing body that regulates the food labeling system in the United States. There are standards and guidelines that food manufacturers must follow when it comes to nutrition and ingredient disclosure on all food packaging. Without a doubt, these structures help the consumer to see what is in a product prior to making an informed purchase. The food labeling requirements do have some loopholes which consumers may or may not be aware.

One thing to keep in mind that numbers listed on a nutrition facts label are not set in stone. Even though products are tested for their complete nutrition profile, the government does allow some lenience in regards to those numbers. As long as food manufacturers keep their recipes consistent, there is room for a slight plus or minus fluctuation in the numbers. Even though your frozen dinner may state a total of 300 calories for the product at the time of testing, there may be a decrease or increase in the number of those calories due to the manufacturing process. Those nutrition numbers might not seem to be as accurate as one would expect, but the overall numerical variations are minute and will most likely not affect an individual’s diet concerns at an extreme level.

When it comes to the disclosure of trans-fats in any product, the line is not clear and is clouded by the regulations that dictate those numbers. In 2006, the FDA applied a rule that all food manufacturers must disclose trans-fats in their products under a newly devised category on the nutrition label. Under Federal labeling guidelines, food manufacturers can claim a product contains zero grams of trans-fat per serving as long as the amount of that fat per serving is one-half gram (.5) or less. If the amount of trans-fat in one serving goes above .5 gram per serving, then the number of trans-fatty acids per serving in the product must be rounded to the nearest whole number. Even though the consumer may be eating a product that contains trans-fatty acids, the manufacturers can state on the package “0 grams of trans-fat” or “not a significant source…”.

The history of trans-fatty acids dates back to the 1890’s, when it was discovered that liquid fats could be turned into solids using a specific process called hydrogenation. German chemist Wilhelm Normann perfected the work of his predecessor Paul Sabatier in successfully producing a hardened fat from liquid oils that could be hydrogenated. The process was patented in 1902 and Wilhelm went on to build a manufacturing facility that could produce the hydrogenated fats on a larger scale. Around 1909, US company Proctor & Gamble acquired the patent rights of Normann and began producing and marketing the world’s first hydrogenated shortening called Crisco. The product was very affordable and had a long shelf life, but comprised mainly of partially hydrogenated oil.

Trans-fats are added to food products because they are cheaper to produce, provide satiety and act as a preservative because they extend the product shelf-life. It was discovered around 1988 that trans-fats were responsible for coronary disease including plaque build-up within arteries that could lead to heart attacks. It was discovered that trans-fats increased the amount of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), bad cholesterol, while lowering high density lipoproteins (HDL), good cholesterol. HDL is responsible for removing excess amounts of LDL in the bloodstream by taking them back to the liver to be processed out of the body. If LDL cholesterol levels become too high, they begin forming plaque in the artery walls, which can lead to coronary issues. Because of the zero gram discrepancy on nutrition labeling, an individual that consumes more than the suggested serving amount may be consuming more trans-fat than they are aware.

Luckily, the consumer can find trans-fats hidden in a product even though its presence is listed as zero grams per serving. These fats can be found by skimming the ingredient section of the food product. If the ingredient is an oil that is partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated, the product contains trans-fatty acids. These oils are prevalent in processed foods, some margarine, breakfast cereals, snacks, chocolate, candy and baking mixes.

Michael Lausterer is a Master Essential Oil Therapist and is co-owner of Basic Earth Essentials.  He is a professional chef with a background in clinical nutrition, and enjoys educating people on natural means for a healthy lifestyle.

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