There has been much publicity about trans-fatty acids, and you may be wondering why one little ingredient is garnering so much press and even federal intervention. To understand why you should avoid trans-fats, it's important to understand what they are and what they can do to your overall well-being.
What Are Trans-Fatty Acids?
These are unsaturated fats that contain trans-isomer fatty acids. These trans-isomer fatty acids are actually a byproduct of the hydrogenation process. When unsaturated fats are put through the hydrogenation process (to make margarine or vegetable shortening, for example), trans-fatty acids are created as a side effect of that process. This process was developed decades ago as a way to keep fats more shelf-stable, or to keep them from going rancid quickly.
While trace amounts of trans-fats are present in animal products, most humans owe their overconsumption of trans-fatty acids to partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, such as margarine or the oils used to fry fast foods. These trans-fatty acids are not essential to our body's needs, and they do not promote good health as other fats may do. In fact, studies show that trans-fats raise levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) in the body, while simultaneously lowering HDL (good cholesterol). This can lead to a host of health problems. It's also the crux of the debate about trans-fatty acids and the reason why they should be avoided except in the trace amounts they occur naturally in animal products.
There are several serious health issues that appear to be aggravated by overconsumption of trans-fatty acids:Coronary Heart Disease
Consumption of trans-fatty acids has been linked to an elevated risk of coronary heart disease. The popularity of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils may be directly to blame for the boom in heart disease over the past few decades.Alzheimer's Disease
Studies show a link between trans-fats and the onset of Alzheimer's Disease.Obesity
Studies have shown a link between a diet high in trans-fatty acids and weight gain. A study conducted on monkeys showed a 7.2% weight gain for those fed a trans-fat diet versus a 1.8% weight gain for those on a mono-unsaturated fat diet.Liver Disease
Because trans-fats are metabolized differently in the liver, overconsumption can lead to liver disease.Infertility
Studies have shown as much as a 73% decrease in fertility in those eating a trans-fat heavy diet, versus a diet rich in monounsaturated fats.Cancer and Diabetes
The research into these two diseases is more inconclusive, but there does appear to be some link between fatty acids and the development of cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Because of the serious health risks that seem to be linked to high fatty acid consumption, the FDA stepped in to the fray in 2003. Under new regulations, trans-fats must be listed on every nutritional label of every item on your grocery shelf. Some companies, major food chains, manufacturers and local communities have taken matters into their own hands, banning the use of trans-fatty acids entirely.
As trans-fatty acids slowly disappear from fast food chains and grocery store shelves, it's wise to ponder your food choices and make smart decisions to ensure your health and well-being. A diet that includes monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, avocadoes and safflower or sunflower oil is considered the healthiest way to eat.