By Dr Tony Vendryes
TRANS-FATTY acids, also known as trans-fats, are fats that are formed when vegetable oils are hardened into margarine or shortening or transformed into unhealthy oils.
This process is called hydrogenation and involves bubbling a gas called hydrogen into various vegetable oils like corn, cottonseed or soybean oil. Thus, healthy vegetable oils are converted into trans-fats. These trans-fats are also referred to as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats.
Many food companies use trans-fats extensively instead of oil, because it reduces cost, extends the storage life of products, and can improve flavour and texture.
Where are trans-fats found?
They are found in many other foods besides margarine and shortening, including fried foods like French fries and fried chicken, doughnuts, cookies, pastries and crackers. In the United States, typical French fries have about 40 per cent trans-fatty acids and many popular cookies and crackers range from 30 to 50 per cent trans-fatty acids. Doughnuts have about 35 to 40 per cent trans-fatty acids.
While bakery items and fried foods are obvious sources of trans fat, many other processed foods such as cereals and waffles can also contain trans-fat. One way to determine the presence of trans-fat in a food is to read the ingredient label and look for shortening, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. The higher up on the list these ingredients appear, the more trans-fats are present in the food.
One problem with trying to avoid trans-fat was that, for a long time, food companies were not required to list on nutrition labels how much trans-fat was in the food you were eating. Finally, in a step in the right direction, the Food and Drug Administration in the US now requires food manufacturers to list trans-fat on nutrition facts labels. Some states have now banned trans-fats from restaurant food. I hope that similar regulation will now be applied to Jamaican food manufacturers and restaurants.
Why are Trans-fats dangerous?
Health authorities like the World Health Organization have expressed major concern over the levels of trans-fats in the modern diet. Medical research has shown that trans-fats have a host of negative effects on health.
On average, Americans consume about five grams of trans-fat per day, according to a 1999 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. While that may sound tiny, research has linked even small amounts of trans-fat to an increased risk of heart disease.
A 1994 Harvard University study found more than twice the risk of heart attacks among those who ate partially hydrogenated oils, which are high in trans-fat, compared with those who consumed little trans-fat.
Consuming trans-fats will:
Increase the levels of bad cholesterol and promote heart disease and circulatory disorders.
Increase the occurrence of several cancers.
Depress the body's immune system.
Decrease testosterone levels in men and increase abnormal sperm formation.
Interfere with fertility, pregnancy and promote low birth weight babies, and poor-quality breast milk.
Worsen diabetes, hypertension and obesity by increasing insulin resistance.
Displace healthy fats, e.g. the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils preventing them from performing their normal function.
Disturb liver function.
In fact, several large studies in the United States and elsewhere also show a strong link between premature death and consumption of foods high in trans-fatty acids. It is calculated that trans-fatty acids are responsible for about 30,000 premature deaths per year in the US.
A few food companies like Lipton, Cadbury and Nestlé have taken steps to eliminate trans-fat from some of their products.
Recently, a lawsuit was filed in the US against Nabisco, the Kraft Foods company that makes Oreo cookies, seeking a ban on the sale of Oreo cookies, because they contain trans-fat, making them dangerous to eat.
The city of New York recently passed a law that made it illegal for restaurants in the area to use trans fats in the foods they serve. Several developed countries have also banned the use of these fats.
Have a balanced diet, high in fruit, vegetables and healthy low-fat protein and reduce your intake of processed fast foods, fried foods, cookies, cakes and crackers.
Carefully read the labels of processed foods and avoid those containing mostly hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Cook primarily with olive oil, virgin coconut oil or canola oil.
Supplement your diet with fibre, healthy omega-3 fats from fish oil and lots of antioxidant vitamins, minerals and herbs, These will help to reduce the negative impact of the trans-fats.
You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at email@example.com or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. His new book 'An Ounce of Prevention, Especially for Women' is available locally and on the Internet.