What is Transfats? Which foods contain Transfats?
Fats are one of the major classes of macronutrients found in food, the others being carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Fat is required by the human body as it helps makes hormones that regulate innumerable functions of the body. It gives energy and keeps the body warm. It helps the body absorb vitamins from foods, builds cells and protects the organs.
Types of Fats
Chemically speaking, fats are hydrocarbons. They are made of long chains of carbon atoms that are linked to or bonded to hydrogen atoms. Depending on the chemical structure or composition, dietary Fats are of three major types – saturated, unsaturated and transfats.
Saturated Fats: Here, the carbon atoms are completely saturated with hydrogen atoms which makes the substance solid at room temperatures. In nature, these are found in red meat like beef, lamb, and pork, poultry like chicken, duck and turkey that still have the skin on, full-fat or whole-milk dairy products like milk, cheese, cream, butter and eggs, as well as oils like palm and coconut oil. While consuming saturated fats in small quantities is OK, excess consumption can increase the bad cholesterol in the blood.
Unsaturated Fats: Here, hydrogen atoms are found in moderate proportion. These are liquid at room temperature and are good for one’s health. These are of 2 types:
- Mono-unsaturated: Here, there is one unsaturated bond. These are liquid at room temperature but turn solid when refrigerated. Examples are avacados, and oils extracted from peanuts, olives, nuts such as almonds, pecans, hazelnut etc, as well as canola oil.
- Poly-unsaturated: Here, there are multiple unsaturated bonds. These are liquid both at room temperature and after refrigeration too. Examples are fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, and oils extracted from sunflower, safflower, soyabean, corn, walnut and flaxseeds.
Trans fats is the third category of fat. Here, the fatty acid molecule contains a trans-double-bond between carbon atoms, with a few hydrogen atoms at the end, giving it a bent rail structure. These are again of 2 types: natural and artificial:
- Natural: Transfats are found in nature in small quantities, in milk and red meat. However, there is not much data on whether they cause any harm and if so, how much harm.
- Artificial: However, the larger, more commonly used and worrisome category of transfats is the artificial variety. Here, hydrogen atoms are pumped into liquid vegetable oils in factories so that they become solid at room temperature. In the process, they last longer without spoiling when added to foods, and also enhance the taste, which makes them addictive. Chemically-speaking, the double bonds between carbon atoms are broken and more and more hydrogen bonds are created laterally. Such oils that are rich in transfats are called Partially Hydrogenated Oils or PHO.
Also Read: The Significance of Diet in Heart Diseases
Why are Trans fats harmful?
Trans fats do not provide any nutritional benefit. On the contrary, they do a lot of harm. They increase the risk of obesity, stroke, heart-attack and diabetes. Yet why are they so popular? Because commercial food companies find it cheaper to use them than healthy oils. The foodstuff doesn’t spoil quickly and it tastes good, making people come back for more. Such foods are also packaged and marketed very well, so people ignore the health risk and are enticed more by the fun factor of such foods. To understand the harm caused by trans fats, we need to understand a little more about cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in the body, and required by the body to make hormones. 80% of the cholesterol found in the body is manufactured by the liver and intestines, while 20% comes from the food we consume. There are 2 types of cholesterol:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or bad cholesterol. These build up on the walls of arteries, making them hard and narrow, a condition known as atherosclerosis.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol or good cholesterol: They pick up the excess cholesterol in the blood and take it back to the liver for processing.
Transfats are harmful to our health in the following ways:
- Transfats raise the LDL level in the blood.
- They lower the HDL level in the blood.
- The above 2 factors lead to atherosclerosis, which increases the risk of heart-attack and stroke.
- Transfats also lead to weight-gain which increases the risk of obesity and type-2 diabetes.
Foods that contain Trans fats
Almost every category of food purchased from commercial food companies, or consumed at eateries and restaurants today contain transfats to different extents. Some of the categories of foods mentioned below are more common in the West than in India, but it’s important to be aware of them, given that Indians travel widely today.
Further, many of those items have made their way onto Retail shelves and kitchen cabinets in India over the years, and made popular through high-budget marketing.
Further, in the US, if a foodstuff contains less than 0.5 gms of transfats in one serving, the manufacturer is allowed to show transfat content on the label as 0. This is misleading and means that even foods that say 0 transfats actually contain transfats.
This is a kind of fat that is used in cooking and baking. It is popular as a cheaper alternative to lard and butter. The name is derived from the fact that the stuff is made from vegetable oils as against lard and butter which come from meat and dairy. Compared to lard and butter, vegetable shortenings achieve a softer and flakier texture to the foodstuff. Given the harmful nature of this product, the FDA (Food Regulatory Authority) in the US imposed a ban on the use of PHO in vegetable shortenings. Thereafter, manufacturers switched to fully hydrogenated oils (FHO) in vegetable shortenings. FHO is mostly made of stearic acid, which makes it less harmful than saturated fats.
It’s common to find raw popcorn sold in packets along with oils that must be used while microwaving or popping the same in a pressure cooker. This oil is full of PHO. After a FDA ban, this was replaced with FHO. A better option than FHO-based popcorn is buying the corn seeds from a food-grains shop and using peanut oil or ghee while popping them in a pressure cooker.
Some vegetable oils
Margarine is a good example of vegetable oils that contain PHO and is often served with sandwiches, chips and crackers in restaurants in India today. It is best avoided. When it comes to other vegetable oils such as groundnut oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, coconut oil, mustard oil and rice-bran oil, they are all healthy as long as they PHO is not mixed in the same, or they are cold-pressed in front of your eyes in cold-pressing mills. But if you are buying packaged vegetable oils, read the label. Look for ‘transfat’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ and avoid those which contain high amounts of these substances.
Also Read: A Diabetes Friendly Diet: A Comprehensive Guide on What to Eat and What Not to Eat
Fried fast foods
Fried chicken, mozzarella sticks, French fries, doughnuts, battered and fried-fish are all western snacks that have become very popular in Indian restaurant-chains today. All these use PHO as that is cheaper and also enhance the taste. Further, a whole lot of Indian snacks that were traditionally fried at home in ghee, peanut oil, sesame or mustard oils are now packaged and sold in condiment stores that can be found in every street-corner in India. Many of these vendors use PHO due to the cost and taste factor. Its best to avoid them and prepare such items at home. The extra effort is worth the reduced health risks.
Cup-cakes, cakes, pies and pastries that were once sparingly consumed have been popularized now by the emergence of pastry chains in several Indian cities. These offer a variety of foodstuffs in eateries complete with a restaurant-like ambience and elegant packaging. However, please note, whether its these pastry chains or your local baker, they all use PHO extensively in their products. While consuming them once in a while, in small quantities, may be OK, it’s not advised to consume them frequently. In addition to the PHO, these are loaded with sugar or salt, which increases the risk of hypertension, obesity, and type-2 diabetes.
Non-dairy coffee creamers
These small packets of powdered coffee-creamers are made from sugar and PHO. Unfortunately, these have become common in restaurants, star hotels, office pantries and homes as well. These are best avoided and can be replaced with milk powder in case liquid milk is difficult to store or transport.
Potato chips, corn chips, pizzas, crackers etc. all use PHO extensively due to the cost and taste factors. Children should be fed these rarely as they can be addictive and because it is difficult to educate children on health-risks. Given the proliferation of new products in the Food & Confectionery industry today, it’s important to read the label every time you are purchasing packaged or ready-to-eat foods. And if these are served in a restaurant or hotel, they are best consumed sparingly and rarely.
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- Feb 09, 2023