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Friday’s Flavor: What’s trans fat?

Originally published September 3, 2010

Everywhere you look these days, labels and commercials shout the absence of trans fats in our favorite foods. You ask yourself, “What are trans fats?”

Trans fats are made by a chemical process called partial hydrogenation where liquid vegetable oil is packed with hydrogen atoms and converted into a solid fat.

Trans fats are largely artificial and ideal for the food industry to work with because of its high melting point, its creamy, smooth texture and its reusability in deep-fat frying.

The food industry capitalizes on the unique characteristics of trans fats to serve a variety of purposes in many different foods. Partially hydrogenated fats, or trans fats, extend the shelf life of food. They also add a certain pleasing mouth-feel to many processed foods, such as some buttery crackers, popcorn, crispy fries, fish sticks, creamy frosting and pastries.

Several prominent studies indicate that trans fats and hydrogenated oils induce many negative side effects, and due to their prevalence in a variety of food items, these effects are magnified for persons with unhealthy diets.

People with large quantities of trans fat and hydrogenated oils in their diets have been consistently shown to be at greater risk for heart disease and possibly other diseases as well.

Food manufacturers tried to reduce or remove trans fats in time for the January 2006 labeling deadline, when trans fats had to be listed on nutrition facts labels.

Wendy’s was among the first of the big fast-food chains to change. New York City’s Board of Health voted unanimously in December 2006 to ban trans fats in all its 24,000 restaurants, from high-end eateries to fast-food joints.

Restaurants were banned from using most oils containing artificial trans fats by July 2007, and were required eliminate them from all foods by July 2008.

Currently, food manufacturers are required to state the number of grams of trans fats per serving.

The new labeling requirement makes identifying the amount of trans fat in foods easier for consumer and eliminates the guess work that was once involved when adding trans fat in its various forms as partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated ingredients.