Good Fats, Bad Fats, Transfats

You may have heard or read that new food packaging information guidelines will make it easier for you to determine whether transfats are included in your favorite snacks. But what is all too frequently missing in such reports is exactly what a transfat is and why you don’t want to consume it.

As a friend of mine wrote me in email the other day, “Am I really sure I don’t want transfats? Sure, they sound bad, but I also notice that they come in my all-time fave treats. All the ‘good for me’ stuff usually tastes like cardboard.”

Fear not, American snackers: the loss of transfats in packaged chips, cookies, and other delectable snack fare probably won’t be missed – not by your taste buds and certainly not by your arteries. In fact, you probably won’t taste the difference between foods with transfats and those without because transfats were usually added to snacks to make them cheaper to produce rather than more aesthetically pleasing.

Transfats are manufactured, meaning they do not occur naturally as you have with the type of fat you find in meat and dairy products. Ever read a package that lists as an ingredient partially hydrogenated vegetable oil? Bingo – this is a transfat, short for trans fatty acid.

Transfats are created when hydrogen gas meets oil. Specifically, a food producer takes liquid vegetable oil, the same stuff you probably have in your kitchen for basic cooking and frying, and then subjects that oil to pressure through hydrogen. The result is a firmer fat, not unlike a type of lard or the Crisco your mother used to fry chicken or make treats.

Manufacturers like transfats because it allows them to prolong the shelf life of cookies, microwave popcorn, chips, and other snack foods without much additional cost. Liquid oil, by comparison, can go bad after a shorter period of time.

But one nasty reality of a firmer fat is that you have something that not only offers resistance to the environmental circumstances that can make your favorite packaged cookies go stale, a transfat can also resist the human body’s natural ability to keep arteries free of obstruction. Indeed, studies show that this firmer type of fat contributes mightily to clogged arteries in people who consume transfats which is a good many of us.

Evidence also suggests this type of fat presents more of a challenge for artery-clearing drugs typically prescribed for those with early to advanced signs of atherosclerotic heart disease which is bad news. The more normal circulation is thwarted by buildup of plaque and fat in the arteries, the greater risk for strokes and major heart attacks along with major damage to the body in general. For example, poor circulation to the legs will affect your ability to walk and can eventually require amputation of one or more limbs.

Beyond this, transfats seem to play a role in increasing our “bad” cholesterol levels. This too can contribute to heart disease.

Today, besides the new food packaging identifying the transfat any given snack contains, you also see manufacturers abandoning the use of transfats altogether. Many chips and cookies now boast 0 transfats, a move in the right direction.

However, it remains to be seen exactly what most food producers will use in place of transfats since they aren’t likely to choose something that will seriously decrease shelf life or negatively impact prices. While we might not always abandon fat-ridden snacks because “we should”, we are apt to buy less of them if the price of potato chips goes through the roof.

If some new substance is added in place of transfats, it could take several years and a lot more medical research studies to determine whether the replacement is better for us overall or produces a wholly different health challenge. But one fact will likely remain true: as much as we enjoy our greasy, caloric treats, we have to watch how much of them we consume.

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