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The Skinny on Trans Fats

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by Christian Schwoyer, Athens Science Cafe

Earlier this month, June 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed a regulation that will forever change the way Americans snack. The regulation will ban all artificial trans fats from processed foods, such as potato chips, cookies and even coffee creamer by the year 2018.  Trans fats are vegetable oils that have hydrogen atoms added to them through a process called hydrogenation.  The added hydrogens change the structure of the fats and allow the molecules to stack neatly on top of one another, allowing the fats to remain solid at room temperature.  The introduction of trans fats extended the shelf life of the prepackaged foods they were found in, while also giving a desirable taste and texture. But what health cost accompanied these improvements in shelf life and taste?

Originally, trans fats were seen as a healthier alternative to the use of saturated fats in snack foods.  However, in the 1990’s, research began showing the risks associated with consuming high levels of trans fats. Most notably is the increased risk of heart disease and stroke due to the combination of raised levels of Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, “bad cholesterol” and the decreased levels of High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, “good cholesterol”.  Increased levels of LDL form hard layers of plaque on the inner walls of arteries,  increasing the risk of blood clots which could cut off blood flow to the brain or heart leading to problems like heart attacks and stroke.  Further, by decreasing the levels of HDL, the consumption of trans fats eliminates the vehicle by which LDL is transported to the liver and broken down.  Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.  This ban on trans fats strives to reduce these fatalities by eliminating a direct cause of heart disease, but what does this change mean for general consumers?

By the year 2018, popular foods, including potato chips, microwave popcorn, cookies, ice cream and almost everything deep fried will be undergoing the removal of trans fats from their ingredient lists.  Thankfully, this doesn’t mean that these favorites won’t be seen in the aisles of local grocery stores.  Instead, it will be the responsibility of the food industry to find safe alternatives to using trans fats in their products; although, it could mean those Pillsbury® cookies will have a slightly different taste.

The American Heart Association recommends a limit of 2 grams of trans fats per day for a 2,000 calorie diet.  It is important to note that although many food packages claim to have zero grams of trans fats, in the United States, any food containing up to 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving can be labeled as zero grams.  The clock is ticking for the food industry to remove any artificial trans fats from their products, but until then we can limit trans fats in our diet by watching the amount of processed foods we eat and avoiding foods containing partially hydrogenated oils.  To help regulate intake of trans fats, the American Heart Association recommends a diet that is centered around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish and nuts.  If you are hungry for more information, please check out the sources listed below.

About the Author

schwoyerChristian B. Schwoyer is a graduate student in the Genetics department at the University of Georgia, studying the basis for frost tolerance in the biofuel crop, switchgrass.  When away from the lab, he loves to run and enjoys a fine cup of coffee, just not at the same time.  He can be reached at schwoyer@uga.edu.

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