Types of Trans Fats
Trans fats have come into use since the 1950s, when saturated fats were removed from products and in turn, replaced with trans fats.
The fats that we are looking at in this blog are artificial trans fats - the other type of trans fat occur naturally, at low levels, in meat and dairy products.
Artificial trans fats are created through the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils (AKA partially hydrogenated vegetable oils), where the structure of the fatty acid is altered through the addition of hydrogen atom. This alteration to the oil means that it will be solid at room temperature and have a longer shelf life – hence why some food manufacturers use them. This is a perfect replacement for saturated fat, which is naturally solid or semi-solid at room temperature. Or is it?
Artificial trans fats can also be formed when vegetable oils are repeatedly heated for frying foods at high temperatures, which is what can cause takeaway foods to be high in trans fats.
Sources of trans fats include bought foods such as:
- Fried foods
- Processed foods
- Previously margarines, although these have been mostly reformulated to reduce hydrogenated vegetable oils and therefore trans fats (BDA, 2017).
What’s the Issue with Trans Fats?
There has been an increase in evidence surrounding the risks between trans fat intake and increased risk of coronary heart disease. It may also be linked to an increased risk of obesity, other cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes (European Parliamentary Research Service, 2016).
Evidence has also suggested that risk of dying from heart disease is estimated to be around 23% higher when individuals are getting 2% of their daily energy intake from trans fats (European Parliamentary Research Service, 2016). This is higher than any other dietary source of energy.
The increase in risk of heart disease is due to increase in triglyceride factors; decrease in HDL cholesterol; increase in LDL cholesterol (Liska et al., 2016); damage to the blood vessels and leading to inflammation and blockage to the vessel; and therefore increased risk of heart disease (European Parliamentary Research Service, 2016).
The inclusion of trans fats within the diet raises the total cholesterol to HDL ratio, which is a predictor for cardiovascular disease (CVD). When looking at LDL cholesterol, there is more than one type and we want them to be large and buoyant, however it has been shown that trans fats, decrease the size of LDLs making them smaller and denser. These smaller LDLs cause an increase in inflammation and have been shown to increase our risk of CVD (Wang and Hu, 2017).
How Nations Have Reacted to the Issue of Trans Fats
In 2003, Denmark was the first country to place a virtual ban on the sales of trans fats, followed by Austria, Hungary, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.
It has been found that in Denmark there have been some positive outcomes: levels of consumption have obviously gone down; within one year, most of the products available on the Danish market were able to comply with the new set limits; nutritional profiles of foods were improved; and it may be partly accountable for the significant decrease in mortality from cardiovascular disease recently in Denmark (WHO. 2014).
In 2015, Sweden had adopted a legislation and Germany and the Netherlands have voluntary agreements with the food industry to reduce the amount of trans fats in foods (WHO, 2015. And European Parliamentary Research Service, 2016).
In America, New York was the first large US city to limit trans fats in restaurants (2006). It was found in New York populations where the artificial trans fatty acids ban had been placed, there was a lower experience of cardiovascular issues than in those areas of population that had no ban on trans fats (Brandt et al., 2017). In 2010 California was the first state to have banned trans fats in restaurants. By 2018 in America, food supplies will have to have eliminated artificial trans fats from their food.
What About the UK?
We also have a voluntary agreement in the UK, with supermarkets and bigger fast food chains signed up to a voluntary agreement that they will not include trans fats (NHS, 2015).
This means however, that smaller companies are not obliged to co-operate with these reductions. It also, therefore, means that we cannot be 100% sure of how many products contain trans fats. In the UK, we do not consume large quantities over the recommended intake (which is 2% of food energy) but it is important to be aware of intake, especially in regards to takeaways.
It is estimated that trans fat consumption makes up around 0.8% of estimated energy consumption in the average UK diet. If we were to ban trans fats in the UK, it is estimated this 0.8% would drop to 0.4% (this would be from natural sources alone), and that deaths from heart disease would fall the same rate at which they have risen, which has been calculated at 7,200 deaths delayed or avoided over 5 years from a total ban (NHS, 2015). It is important to note that this was derived from a mathematical model and therefore means that the results rely on the researchers making correct assumptions (NHS, 2015).
How to Avoid Trans Fat
Since there is no legal requirement in the UK that food manufacturers label trans fats, and also health claims cannot be made around trans fats, it is important to look at ingredients:
- Avoid ingredients listed “partially hydrogenated fat or oil”
- When eating out, try to reduce your intake of fried foods since there will be no indication or labels of whether it has been cooked with trans fats or not.
Trans fats, especially artificial trans fats, have no nutritional benefits and have also been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
To reduce your intake, it is always important to avoid foods which contain trans fats and make checking labels a habit so that you’re aware of what’s in the food you’re eating.
Daisy, MSc PGDip ANutr, is a Registered Associate Nutritionist with a Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition, both of which are Association for Nutrition (AFN) accredited. She, also, has a BSc degree in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience; and has completed an AFN accredited Diet Specialist Nutrition course.
Daisy has worked for an NHS funded project, the Diabetes Prevention Programme; and shadowed a nutritionist in Harley Street.
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BDA. (2017). Trans fats. Available here.
Brandt, EJ. Myers, R. Perraillon, MC. And Polonsky, TS. (2017). Hospital admissions for myocardial infarction and stroke before and after the trans-fatty acid restrictions in New York. Available here.
European Parliamentary Research Service. (2016). Trans Fats – overview of recent developments. Available here.
Liska, DJ. Cook, CM. Wang, DD. Gaine, PC. And Baer, DJ. (2016). Trans fatty acids and cholesterol levels: an evidence map of the available science. Food and Chemical Toxicology. Available here.
NHS. (2015). UK ban on trans fats ‘would save thousands of lives’. Available here.
Wang, DD. And Hu, FB. (2017). Dietary fat and risk of cardiovascular disease: recent controversies and advances. Reviews in Advance. Available here.
WHO. (2014). Europe leads the world in eliminating trans fats. Available here.
WHO. (2015). Eliminating trans fats in Europe. Available here.