Reina Hasting

When a food product claims to have “zero grams of trans fat,” does it really? Let’s see. According to the Food and Drug Administration, a company can say its product has zero grams of trans fat as long as each serving size contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, but how many of us really just eat one serving size? A while back, I asked this question to students at a local middle school.

It was back in 2015 when the FDA banned trans fat in food products and gave companies three years to comply. I held up a bag of small soft square cookies with a jam filling. I explained to the students that the serving size was two cookies, and I asked if they would eat just two or would they eat more. I got a reply of “I’d eat the whole bag!” and this student was serious. I said, OK, let’s check out what all we are consuming when we eat a whole bag of these cookies. For this article, we’ll focus on the trans fat information I shared.

Trans fat is formed through a manufacturing process called hydrogenation in which hydrogen is added to oils to make it a solid fat at room temperature. Artificial trans fat is used to enhance the shelf life as well as flavor and texture in processed foods, such as donuts, cookies, chips, baked goods, stick margarines and other food products.

According to the American Heart Association, trans fat raises our level of bad cholesterol (LDL) in the blood and lowers the level of good cholesterol (HDL) in the blood. Trans fat can be found in the ingredient list with the words “partially hydrogenated” preceding the name of an oil. For example, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. 

I had a student investigate the ingredient list of the bag of cookies. He determined that, yes, there was trans fat in the cookies. We couldn’t determine exactly how much. We just knew that two cookies had less than 0.5 grams of trans fat and that he would eat the whole bag, which was 10 servings.

Due to the growing body of evidence linking consumption of trans fatty acids to cardiovascular disease, the FDA decided to remove trans fat from processed foods as a strategy to help prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year. However, fast forward over three years later and we still have trans fat in some of our foods because the FDA has granted extensions. To read more about the extensions, go to bit.ly/2WG127r.

Recently, a peer-reviewed study was shared with me that prompted me to write about trans fat. The study, which was published by the American Academy of Neurology, determined that higher serum elaidic acid (a major trans-fatty acid formed in the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils) is a possible risk factor for the development of all-cause dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in later life.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s with a projection of 14 million Americans by 2050. To learn more about Alzheimer’s, you can go to bit.ly/2r5hRg7.

In the end, we really don’t know what the long-term effects are with some artificial ingredients that sometimes we don’t even know we are consuming. All we can do is become more aware and informed. Check the ingredient list when choosing processed foods, and remember that products can claim zero grams of an ingredient if it’s less than 0.5 grams per serving size.  

Reina Hasting is a coordinator with Extension’s Family Nutrition Program, which is administered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For questions, she can be contacted at rhhasting@alaska.edu or 907-474-2437.

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