Trans fats – what are they?

The good news about trans fats is that the big supermarkets have announced that they are banning them from own label foods.
For once the hype is true – trans fats are bad news because:
• They cause an increase in harmful cholesterol levels which can clog up arteries and lead to heart disease
• They are of no nutritional use to the body but worse still they block the body’s ability to use                                                              healthy polyunsaturated oils

Most consumers know that saturated fats are not good for them because they raise cholesterol levels but had no knowledge of trans or hydrogenated fats.

Types of fat:

There is much confusion around fats– some of which are healthy.

• Saturated fats contribute to higher cholesterol levels, furring up of arteries and weight gain – butter, hard cheese, cream, full cream milk, fatty meat products such as sausages.
• Monounsaturated oils – Olive oil, avocadoes and some nuts and seeds are high in monounsaturated oils – these aren’t harmful fats but should not be eaten in excess as they will pile on weight.
• Trans-fats – hydrogenated fats in margarine and processed foods like pies. Block the body’s ability to use polyunsaturated fats and should be avoided – check ingredients.
• Polyunsaturated fats – the Omega 3s and 6s – are essential fatty acids particularly required for healthy brain development and function. Omega 3s are prevalent in sunflower, pumpkin, sesame seeds and oil, linseed, nuts, oily fish such as mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon and sardines while safflower, corn., soybean and sunflower oils are rich in Omega 6s.

Why do food manufacturers use trans fats?

Trans fats are made when vegetable oils are heated to high temperatures, making them solid fats. This makes make them easier to use in manufacturing food – the process is called hydrogenation as hydrogen is added to liquid unsaturated oil to make it a solid saturated fat. This process was widely used from the 1950s onwards when margarine became an alternative to butter – considered to be unhealthy because of its saturated fats!

Apart from being easier to use in food manufacture it is a matter of cost – hydrogenated or trans fats are cheaper, and they give foods a longer shelf life. All of these factors make them popular with the company accountants and the public’s health is not considered at all.

Good news – retailers ban them

Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have all announced that they are banning trans fats from their own label branded foods. Waitrose has already banned them from their chilled ready meals and M & S stopped selling foods with them earlier this year. The bans by the other supermarkets won’t come into force until the end of the year.

This is great news, but always be aware that this only applies to ‘own label’ brands and not those sold in the supermarkets by other manufacturers. The same was true of genetically modified ingredients and Aspartame when some retailers banned those.

What are they in?

The latest study found them in many products that are popular with children such as Cadbury Double Decker, Kelloggs’ Chocolate Caramel Rice Crispies Squares, Morrisons’ Caramel Bars, Sainsbury’s Polar Biscuits, and Cadbury Brunch Bars.

They’re in all kinds of food products including chocolate cakes, ready made meals, ice cream, pies, gravy mixes and much more. According to the Daily Express, July 8th edition, Kelloggs and Cadbury whose products were named in recent research have claimed that they are taking trans fats out of their foods. The article claimed, ‘Kraft removed trans fats from some of its cookies after a US campaign body filed a law suit.’

The Scotsman also ran an article recently citing the trans fats in a range of foods:


10 chicken nuggets – total fat 20g: saturated fat 2g, trans fat 2.5g
Large McDonald’s fries, total fat 22.5g: saturated fat 3.5g, trans fat 6g
Big Mac burger, total fat 22.8g: saturated fat 9.8g, trans fat 1.5g
KFC chicken strips and regular fries, total fat 28.9g: saturated fat 3.9g, trans fat 4.4g


Bag of crisps (42g), total fat 11g: saturated fat 2g, trans fat 3.2g
Custard cream filled biscuits (30g), total fat 6g, saturated fat 1g, trans fat 2g

What to look for

Being aware is half the battle for consumers. Some products have ‘Free from Trans Fats’ on the label which allows people to make a choice. Others may mention hydrogenated oil or fats in the ingredients list rather than trans fats so those products can be avoided. The best bet for consumers is that food companies will be driven by customer demand and will take them out of products because they are not essential ingredients.

When cooking at home it is better to avoid cooking with any kind of margarines or butter substitutes unless they claim that they are free from trans fats. However, according to Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible, cooking with normal vegetable oils generates free radicals, the substances that attack healthy cells in the body. It is preferable to cook with either:

• Coconut oil
• or Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What is the government doing?

Denmark introduced laws controlling the sale of foods containing trans fats in 2003, and Canada banned their use in foods in 2004. Early in 2006 the United States brought in legislation to oblige food manufacturers to list their inclusion in food labelling.

The UK government in the shape of the Food Standards Agency has run two campaigns to raise awareness of the health issues related to trans fats and they have made suggestions to food manufacturers to remove trans fats from products, but they seem reluctant to bring in legislation. The FSA recommends the daily intake of trans fats should not exceed 5g, but many consumers are totally unaware of the range of popular foods that contain the damaging synthetic fats.

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