Natural versus industrial trans fats.

Although in Canada we still allow trans fats in our foods, the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) recently proposed a ban on industrially produced trans fatty acids or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHVO).  Most of the trans fats in our diet come from industrially produced trans fats, however, a small portion of the trans fat come from natural sources (meat and milk).  Because no distinction is made between industrial and natural trans fats on the nutrition label this leads to some confusion.  Should we be avoiding these naturally occurring trans fats?  The answer is “no” and it’s backed by considerable scientific evidence.

Industrial trans fats or PHVO are fats produced when liquid oils are hydrogenated to make them more solid and shelf stable at room temperature.  In the early 1900’s this seemed like a good way to convert excess soybean oil into a valuable substitute for the butterfat. However, research has linked consumption of industrial trans fats to increased risk of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, unhealthy weight gain and immune problems.

These industrially produced trans fats are different in both quantity and quality from naturally occurring trans fats.

Naturally occurring trans fats are formed in the digestive tract of certain animals (e.g. cattle and sheep).  These transfats are incorporated into the meat, milk and milk products of these animals.  Researchers at the University of Alberta and elsewhere have found that the small quantities of these natural trans fats in foods are not harmful and may have anti-cancer properties and provide some protection from cardiovascular disease.  As a result, countries that have banned trans fats (Denmark) or are considering banning trans fats (U.S.) have exempted naturally occurring trans fats from the ban.

Non-hydrogenated margarines are now available and PPEP specifies non-hydrogenated margarine in recipes that call for margarine.  In addition, food companies have removed a large percentage of the industrial trans fat from the food supply.  That said, the USDA article indicates “(industrial) trans fat can still be found in such processed foods as:

  • crackers, cookies, cakes, frozen pies and other baked goods
  • snack foods (such as microwave popcorn)
  • frozen pizza
  • vegetable shortenings and stick margarines
  • coffee creamers
  • refrigerated dough products (such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls)
  • ready-to-use frostings”

Check your label!