What Are Trans Fats?

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that it is taking steps to further reduce artificial trans fat from processed food. The following Q&A with Institute of Food Technologists President-Elect, Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, CFS explains what consumers need to know about trans fat.

Q: What are trans fats and what do they do?

A: Trans fats are part of partially hydrogenated fats used to help stabilize foods for storage and also create the desired texture and baking properties of foods. Examples include, providing the creaminess in icings and stability in cookies. 

Q: What happens when you take them out?
A: If you use vegetable oil when you make a cookie, the cookie tends to be runny and flat. If you want a nice fluffy cookie, you need to use a solid fat. The problem is we were trying to get away from solid fats because they contain saturated fats. 

Q: Why were trans fats used in the first place?
A: Originally, they were designed to help make food products more healthful as an alternative to saturated fats which we know are not good for cardiovascular disease. Food companies began introducing them into more products, because they help contribute to foods being more stable and lasting longer, and you reduce food waste, so they were very popular.

As people began to realize that the process to transform the oils into fats produced some of these trans fatty acids, they became concerned about the role of these acids in health because they’re not found commonly in nature. Over the years there has been more evidence suggesting that these trans fatty acids may be bad for cardiovascular health as well.

Q: What have companies been doing so far?
A:  So far food companies have been switching out and using more saturated forms of fat: butter, cocoa fat, palm oil, other sources that tend to be more stable and have more of a solid nature.  In some cases, they are completely reformulating the product.

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