Saying Good-Bye to Trans-Fats in Your Diet

You may have heard a lot about trans fats.

These fats are notoriously unhealthy, but you may not know why.

Many other countries have not yet adopted policies limiting or banning their use.

This article explains everything you need to know about trans fats.

Trans fats, or trans-fatty acids, are a form of unsaturated fat.

They come in both natural and artificial forms.

Natural, or ruminant, trans fats occur in the meat and dairy from ruminant animals, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. They form naturally when bacteria in these animals’ stomachs digest grass.

However, dairy and meat eaters needn’t be concerned.

Several reviews have concluded that a moderate intake of these fats does not appear harmful (1).

The best-known ruminant trans fat is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is found in dairy foods, butter, lamb and beef.

Some food manufacturers are fortifying foods with extra CLA and marketing them as fuctional foods. There is not enough evidence in humans yet to support the use of CLA supplements or these fortified foods marketed as functional or medical foods (2).

However, artificial trans fats — otherwise known as industrial trans fats or partially hydrogenated fats — are hazardous to your health.

These fats occur when vegetable oils are chemically altered to stay solid at room temperature, which gives them a much longer shelf life (3).

Trans fats are found in two forms — natural, which occur in some animal products and aren’t considered harmful, and artificial, which are hydrogenated vegetable oils and have serious health consequences.

Artificial trans fats may increase your risk of heart disease.

In a series of clinical studies, people consuming trans fats instead of other fats or higher quality carbs experienced a significant increase in LDL (bad) cholesterol with a corresponding decrease in HDL (good) cholesterol (4).

Meanwhile, other naturally occurring dietary trans fats raise both LDL and HDL but they are not associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (4, 5).

Indeed, many observational studies link artificial or industrial trans fats to an increased risk of heart disease (4).

Both observational studies and clinical trials suggest that artificial or industrial trans fats significantly increase your risk of heart disease.

The relationship between trans fats and diabetes risk is not completely clear.

However, a recent study found no relationship between trans fat intake and diabetes (6).

Several controlled studies examining trans fats and diabetes risk factors, such as insulin resistance and blood sugar levels, show inconsistent results (7).

A 2021 animal study concluded that trans fatty acids significantly increased the risk of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and fatty liver (8).

Trans fats may drive insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, but the results from human studies are mixed.

Excess inflammation is thought to be a primary cause of many chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and arthritis.

Some studies indicate that artificial trans fats increase inflammatory markers when replacing other nutrients in the diet — but naturally occurring trans fats are not associated with inflammation (9, 10, 11).

Studies indicate that artificial trans fats increase inflammation, especially in people with excess weight or obesity.

Trans fats are believed to damage the inner lining of your blood vessels, known as the endothelium.

A small human study showed that a beverage with high levels of trans fat impaired the function of the lining of blood vessels and increased insulin resistance when compared with a high saturated fat beverage. This may help explain the association of trans fat intake with cardiovascular disease (12).

More recently, a study of 111 subjects with coronary artery disease found a clear correlation between increased consumption of trans fatty acids with the severity of their arterial lesions (13).

Recent studies have examined trans fats’ effect on cancer, finding a connection between trans fat intake and increase of breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers (14, 15).

Trans fats may damage the inner lining of your blood vessels and increase the risk of certain cancers.

Before the FDA restricted their sale, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were the largest source of artificial trans fats in the diet because they were used to increase the shelf life of many foods such as crackers, cookies, snack cakes and other snack foods.

While they have been found in a variety of processed foods, governments have recently moved to restrict trans fats.

Several other countries have taken similar steps to reduce the trans fat content of processed goods.

Processed food that contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is the richest source of trans fat in the modern diet. As of 2018, the use of trans fat in these products has been banned in the US.

Though trans fats have been banned in food in the US since 2020, it can be tricky to completely avoid traces of them.

In the United States, manufacturers can label their products “trans-fat-free” as long as there are fewer than 0.5 grams of these fats per serving.

Although manufacturers are no longer allowed to use trans fats as an ingredient, trans-fats are created in very small amounts when oils are processed with heat, also when you cook with oils at high heat. So despite the ban, it is possible to find small amounts in some foods.

Thus, it is wise to reduce the amount of highly processed foods in your diet.

Even so, because of the ban, we are mostly avoiding trans fats already without making much effort.

The FDA has banned trans fats in food since 2020. Trace amounts may still be found, but they are easy to avoid in food since the ban.

Most trans fats are hazardous to your health.

Although ruminant (natural) trans fats from animal products are considered safe in moderate amounts, artificial ones are strongly associated with health problems, including heart disease.

Artificial trans fats are likewise linked to long-term inflammation, insulin resistance, and even cancer, especially for people with obesity or excess weight.

Although the amount of trans fats in the modern diet has declined, the average intake is still a concern in many countries.

Saying Good-Bye to Trans-Fats in Your Diet

Trans fats are a major contributor to heart disease.  Although small amounts of trans fats occur naturally in some meat and dairy products, including beef, lamb and butterfat, the majority of trans fats are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid.  Another name for trans fats is “partially hydrogenated oils”.

Companies like using trans fats in foods because they are easy to use, inexpensive to produce and increase the shelf life of products.  Trans fats, however, increase your risk of developing heart disease and are also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  Trans fats, like saturated fat and dietary cholesterol raise the bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower the good (HDL) cholesterol levels.  Trans fats are found in many foods including French fries, other fried foods, donuts and baked goods including pastries, cookies, biscuits, crackers, pie crusts, and stick margarines and shortenings.  You can find the amount of trans fats in a packaged item by looking at the nutrition facts label, and you can also spot them in the ingredients list as “partially hydrogenated oils”.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of trans-fats you eat to less than 1% of your daily total calories. It is advisable to choose foods low in trans fats, saturated fat and cholesterol as part of a healthy diet to reduce the risk of heart disease.

  • Check the nutrition facts panel on food labels to compare foods.  Choose foods lower in trans fats, saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Choose alternative fats. Replace trans-fats and saturated fats in your diet with mono and poly unsaturated fats such as olive and canola oil, corn oil, sunflower oil and foods like nuts and fish.
  • Choose vegetable oils (except avoid coconut and palm kernel oil) and soft margarines (liquid, tub or spray) more often because the amounts of trans-fat, saturated fat and cholesterol are lower than the amounts in solid shortening, hard (stick) margarine and butter.
  • Consider fish. Most fish are lower in saturated fat than meat
  • Choose lean meats. Choose poultry and remove skin and avoid frying
  • Choose lean beef and pork and trim off visible fat and avoid frying.
  • Ask before you order when eating out. Ask which fats are being used in the preparation of your food when eating or ordering out.
  • Watch calories. Fats are high in calories, so pay attention.
  • Limit sweets and baked goods including cookies, pies, pastries, donuts, biscuits.

When reading food labels, be aware that “zero trans fats” does not necessarily mean that there is absolutely no trans fat in the product; one serving of the food can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fats, according to the law and still be labeled “trans fat free”.  Only products labeled “no trans fats” really mean there are no trans fats. So this February become aware of what foods contain trans fats, be heart smart and say good-bye to trans fats forever.

Trans fats are an unhealthy type of fat found in some foods. While trans fats can be found naturally in some products from ruminant animals such as cows, most trans fats in recent decades have come from industrially produced partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). PHOs have been widely used in products such as margarine, spreads, and vegetable shortening.

Because of FDA regulation of PHOs, they are less common than they used to be.

Some studies have suggested that both natural and artificial trans fats may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease by increasing your LDL cholesterol and lowering your HDL cholesterol. However, the American Heart Association says, “There have not been sufficient studies to determine whether these naturally occurring trans fats have the same bad effects on cholesterol levels as trans fats that have been industrially manufactured.”

There is also some evidence that artificial trans fats may induce inflammation, which may also contribute to cardiovascular disease. Because of this, healthcare professionals recommend limiting your intake of foods with trans fats.

This article explains what trans fats are, foods that contain trans fats, and ways to reduce your intake.

boonchai wedmakawand / Getty Images

What Are Trans Fats?

Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat. Our bodies cannot properly break down the structure of trans fats during digestion.

Trans fats that occur naturally in animal products are not considered harmful, but when these types of fats are added to processed food, they may cause health problems.

The trans fats to watch for are the ones artificially produced and placed in prepackaged foods or commercially prepared deep-fried foods. These trans fats are introduced during cooking or during the manufacturing process to help extend a product’s shelf life. They also help some foods taste more satisfying.

Foods Containing Trans Fats

  • Fast foods—including tater tots, and French fries
  • Some spreads—such as margarine spreads or peanut butter
  • Some snack foods—such as chips, crackers, and cookies
  • Fried foods—including fried chicken, onion rings, and nuggets
  • Nondairy creamer
  • Pre-prepared cake frostings
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Commercially pre-prepared products, such as pie crusts, pizza dough, and cookie dough
  • Some pastries, donuts, and pies

The FDA effectively banned companies from manufacturing foods with trans fats, but if you have food that was processed prior to 2021 on your shelf, those items might still contain artificially produced trans fats.

While restaurants, including fast food giants like McDonald’s, and bakeries have reduced or eliminated their use of trans fat ingredients, trans fats can still develop during the frying process. So, you should watch for any type of deep-fried food.

How You Can Reduce the Amount of Trans Fats in Your Diet

The American Heart Association recommends limiting—and even avoiding—the consumption of trans fats in a healthy diet. Although most food products should be free of trans fats, it’s possible that they still lurk in some types of foods. To protect your heart and overall health, keep these tips in mind:

Checking Nutrition Label

Labels are required to list “trans fat” or “trans” on a separate line under the saturated fat line. However, if the amount of trans fats per serving is less than 0.5 grams, food manufacturers may note that the food is “not a significant source of trans fat.”

Avoiding foods that may contain trans fats from cooking is important. These foods are also high in calories and saturated fat—both of which can have a negative impact on your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

By Jennifer Moll, PharmD

Jennifer Moll, MS, PharmD, is a pharmacist actively involved in educating patients about the importance of heart disease prevention.

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  • A recipe for good health: banish trans fat to history’s dust bin and offer people healthy options

Trans fat is a killer: up to 500 000 people a year die worldwide from the consequences of eating it. Trans fat increases LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, the compound that clogs arteries and causes heart attacks and deaths from heart disease.

Most trans fat comes from artificial, industrially produced partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHO), and is used in many baked foods, frying oils, fried foods and hardened fats, like margarine and vegetable ghee. They are cheap and increase the shelf life of processed food.

But they have no known health benefit and can be readily replaced with other ingredients to preserve taste and consistency. They do nothing but harm our hearts; in essence, they are the tobacco of food products.

And yet it would be so simple to eliminate them. PHO can easily be substituted with other vegetable oils that are healthier, no more expensive and taste good too, such as high-oleic vegetable oils.

In 2018, WHO called for the complete elimination of industrially produced trans fat from the global food supply by the end of 2023. Since then, we have been supporting countries to implement policies prohibiting trans fat, and to replace it with healthier oils.

There are two best-practice policy alternatives. The first is a national limit of 2 grams of industrially produced trans fat per 100 grams of total fat in all foods. The second is a national ban on the production or use of partially hydrogenated oils (a major source of trans fat).

A further 17 countries, with an additional 400 million people, are using less restrictive policies, but are still on a good path towards implementing WHO’s package of recommended best practices.

This is remarkable progress, with an almost six-fold increase in the number of people protected by best-practice policies since the launch of the initiative. The results are clear. In Denmark, the first country to eliminate trans fat, studies show that after the introduction of the regulation in 2004, there was a decrease in mortality from heart disease.

Many nations are heading in the right direction. For example, the United States has passed a law banning the production and use of PHO in its food supply.

Increasingly, upper-middle- and lower-middle-income countries, such as Argentina, Bangladesh, India, Paraguay, the Philippines and Ukraine, are also implementing these policies. Best-practice policies are also being considered in Mexico, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. If adopted, Nigeria would be the second and most populous country in Africa to put a best-practice trans fat elimination policy in place.

However, 9 of the 16 countries with the highest estimated proportion of coronary heart disease deaths caused by trans fat still do not have a best-practice policy in place: Australia, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Ecuador, Egypt, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and the Republic of Korea.

Governments play a key in the elimination of trans fat, but to reach our goal it is essential to engage industry – the producers of raw materials and final food products.

By replacing industrial trans fat with healthier oils and fats in their products, food manufacturers, the food service sector and suppliers of oils and fats can help to protect people from the harms of trans fat, even in countries where national legislation is not yet in place. If they so choose, these companies could have an almost unparalleled impact on global health.

In addition to action by governments and industry, the work of civil society is also vital. One such organization, Resolve to Save Lives, plays an instrumental role in advocating for the elimination of trans fat and advancing key policy changes in countries.

WHO is spearheading the global push towards elimination. Under the newly established WHO Validation Programme for Trans Fat Elimination, WHO will recognize country successes in implementing best practice policy along with effective monitoring and enforcement.

One of WHO’s top priorities is to support countries to promote health and prevent disease, by addressing its root causes in the air people breathe, the conditions in which they live and work, and in the food they eat. Prevention is not only better than cure, it’s cheaper. Eliminating trans fat is therefore a powerful way of preventing heart disease and the massive costs it incurs for individuals, families and economies in medical treatment and lost productivity.

Food should be a source of health, not a cause of disease. It’s time to banish trans fat to the dustbin of history.

Want to read more?

Industrially produced trans fat – commonly found in packaged foods, baked goods, cooking oils and spreads – is responsible for up to 500,000 premature deaths from coronary heart disease each year, the UN agency said.

Huge health risks

Since then, 43 countries have implemented best-practice policies for tackling trans fat, with some 2.8 million people now protected, a nearly six-fold increase. However, the elimination goal currently remains unattainable.

“Trans fat has no known benefit, and huge health risks that incur huge costs for health systems,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General.

“By contrast, eliminating trans fat is cost effective and has enormous benefits for health. Put simply, trans fat is a toxic chemical that kills, and should have no place in food. It’s time to get rid of it once and for all.”

Limits and bans

Alternatives include limiting trans fat to two grammes per 100 grammes of total fat in all foods, and mandatory national bans on the production or use of partially hydrogenated oils – a major source of trans fat – as an ingredient in foods.

Currently, nine of the 16 countries with the highest estimated proportion of coronary heart disease deaths caused by trans fat intake do not have a best-practice policy.

They are Australia, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Ecuador, Egypt, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and the Republic of Korea.

Nations adopting policies

While most policies have so far been implemented in richer nations, largely in the Americas and in Europe, WHO said an increasing number of middle-income countries are implementing or adopting policies, including Argentina, Bangladesh, India, Paraguay, the Philippines and Ukraine.

Other countries are considering taking action this year, such as Mexico, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. To date, no low-income countries have adopted a best-practice policy on trans fat elimination.

A ‘preventable tragedy’

Dr Tom Frieden, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Live, warned that progress is at risk of stalling.

“Every government can stop these preventable deaths by passing a best-practice policy now. The days of trans fat killing people are numbered – but governments must act to end this preventable tragedy.”

Areas for action

This year, WHO recommends that countries focus on adopting best-practice policy, in addition to monitoring and surveillance, healthy oil replacements and advocacy.

The UN agency has developed guidance to help governments make rapid advances in these four areas.

Meanwhile, food manufacturers are encouraged to eliminate industrially produced trans fat from their products, in line with commitment made by the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA).

Major suppliers of oils and fats also are asked to remove industrially produced trans fat from products sold to food manufacturers globally.

Genes Mentioned

There is a mountain of evidence demonstrating how cutting out trans fats can massively reduce your risk of a heart attack, stroke, or other potentially fatal health issues. So, let’s look at how to avoid eating trans fats and why their replacements might not be as healthy as you’d like.

FDA position on trans fats

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for the elimination of industrially produced trans fats from the global food supply by 2023, warning that trans fats kill up to half a million people globally each year. 1 So, why aren’t trans fats banned in the US?

To be fair, the FDA isn’t entirely negligent when it comes to trans fats, but it would sure be nice if they sped up their enforcement. Back in 2006, the FDA brought in rules about labelling, and in 2018 they passed regulation to stop manufacturers adding trans fats to food. So, foods sold in 2019 should be trans fat-free, right? Not quite.

Food manufacturers have been prohibited from adding trans fats to foods since 2018, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t foods containing trans fats on grocery store shelves. Why? Because the FDA extended the compliance deadline to January 1, 2020, for foods already on the market. This was to allow those foods manufactured before the 2018 deadline to work through the food distribution system. 2

As of January 2020, the FDA will have effectively banned artificial trans fats in foods. But don’t rest easy just yet. Food manufacturers can still seek FDA permission to use partially hydrogenated oils in foods if they cannot find a way to reformulate products. 3 And, of course, there may still be some foods hanging around that were manufactured before 2018 and have not been taken off shelves just yet.

Wherever you’re getting your food, it’s good practice to check nutrition and ingredients panels.

It’s also essential to know how to check nutrition labels properly. Unfortunately, this isn’t as simple as just looking for a ‘0’ next to trans fats on the nutrition label.

Reading nutrition labels for trans fats

Labelling guidelines allow manufacturers to put a ‘0’ in the column next to trans fats if a food contains less than 0.5 grams per serving. It’s easy to see how, then, the average American still consumes 1.3 grams of artificial trans fats every day, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The labeling guidelines rules allow vegetable and seed oil manufacturers to claim their products are free of trans fats, when in fact they often contain small amounts. Consider this quote from an excellent Harvard Health article on the subject:

Bottles of canola, soybean, and corn oil in the supermarket proudly proclaim “Contains zero grams of trans-fat.” Read the fine print that states zero grams of trans-fat per serving, which is only one tablespoon, or about 14 grams of oil. The FDA allows any component that is less than 0.5 grams per serving to be listed as zero grams! Despite this claim, virtually all vegetable oils sold in the supermarket contain small amounts (less than 5%) of trans-fat.

Without even knowing it, you could easily consume 1.3 grams of trans fats in just three servings of foods that have a ‘0’ for trans fats on the label but that actually contain almost half a gram of trans fats per serving. 4 Factor in how most serving sizes are actually far below what the average person eats and you’ve got a whole lot of potential for high intakes of trans fats.

Your best bet to avoid trans fats altogether is to check both the nutrition label and the ingredients panel. If there are any trans fats listed on the nutrition label, skip that food. If there aren’t, make sure that there are no partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list. You might also see this listed as vegetable shortening.

To reduce the likelihood of consuming trans fats, consider using soft margarine as a substitute for harder stick forms. Better yet, skip the margarine altogether and use a little fresh organic olive oil, avocado oil, or coconut oil, depending on your capacity for sterol metabolism and the function the fat needs to play in the dish you’re making.

Which foods contain trans fats?

Let’s get acquainted with some of the main culprits for trans fats. These are primarily fried foods prepared in restaurants, and processed foods such as candy, baked goods, and spreads. Many places in the US have now banned or brought about voluntary elimination of the use of trans fats for cooking in restaurants. Trans fats may still be present in sauces and dips that aren’t made in-house, though.

Trans fats are the darling of the food industry. This is partly because partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are less likely to spoil, i.e. go rancid, meaning they have a longer shelf life. Also, the process of hydrogenation makes trans fats solid at room temperature, meaning they are useful for creating spreads and shortening used for cakes, cookies, crackers, pastries, and pie crusts. PHOs can also be used again and again, such as for deep frying foods in restaurants, unlike other oils that need replacing frequently.

Where else might you find ‘hidden’ trans fats? Try looking at the labels for:

  • Potato chips and corn chips (and even ‘healthy’ kale chips and bean chips)
  • Packaged or microwave popcorn
  • Refrigerator dough products such as canned biscuits and cinnamon rolls
  • Frozen pizza crusts
  • Non-dairy coffee creamers
  • Non-dairy margarines and spreads.

Ditching trans fats is an important step in making our food healthier. Unfortunately, many food manufacturers haven’t embraced healthy alternatives to trans fats when reformulating their products.

What’s the alternative to trans fats?

In some cases, the same foods that used to be made with trans fats are now made with tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel and palm oils. These contain a lot of saturated fat, which is also liable to raise your cholesterol levels and contribute to poor cardiovascular health.

Vegetable oils are often touted as the healthier alternative to saturated fats, but these oils have their own set of problems. Vegetable oils are very quick to spoil, easily damaged by heat in most cases, and are a major source of omega-6 fatty acids, which can displace omega-3 fatty acids and contribute to inflammation and hormone disruption.7 If you must cook with vegetable oils, cold pressed and non-hydrogenated products are the safest bet.

Key takeaways

For the most part, then, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for nutrition. When it comes to trans fats, though, the evidence is clear: there are no health benefits from these fats and everyone is better off avoiding trans fats.

In a few months, the FDA’s effective ban on added trans fats will come into effect. Almost five years have passed since the FDA removed ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) status from partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the main source of dietary trans fats. Once again, this demonstrates how painfully, and harmfully slow regulation can be. It also drives home the need for all of us, as consumers, to be proactive about our health.

Trans fat has become a buzzword in the US. You’ve probably heard over and over that this type of fat is bad for you. But what is it — and why should it be avoided?

Trans Fats exist naturally in small amounts in some meat and dairy products. However, they’re also artificially added to many foods as partially hydrogenated oil, because it spoils more slowly than similar products. While doctors and scientists are not sure exactly how bad naturally occurring trans fats are for you, they do know that artificial trans fats can lead to high cholesterol and a higher risk of heart attack, stroke, and even diabetes.

Why You Should Avoid Trans Fats

Consuming trans fats, especially those from hydrogenated oils, increases your LDL cholesterol. This is the “bad” type of cholesterol that clogs and hardens your arteries, leading to a higher risk of blood clotting, heart attack, or stroke.

As there is no real nutritional benefit to including hydrogenated oil in your diet, doctors recommend reducing your intake of trans fats as much as possible. In fact, the FDA banned products containing partially hydrogenated oils in the US, as they are one of the most common sources of trans fat.

However, some of these products may still be on the market until 2021: the FDA is allowing companies to sell products that businesses produced before the ban took place. Additionally, if a product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, food companies can market it as having 0 grams of trans fats, so it’s still important to be aware of foods that may contain it.

Foods With Trans Fat

  • Fried FoodsFried foods — like french fries, mozzarella sticks, and fish sticks — may have trans fat, depending on what type of oil they have been cooked in. You should enjoy them in moderation, if at all.
  • MargarineMargarine is sometimes marketed as a healthier alternative to butter, but some kinds of margarine actually contain up to two grams of trans fat per tablespoon. However, there are more and more options on the market that use natural alternatives to make the product trans-fat-free.
  • Non-Dairy Coffee CreamerIt’s possible that your daily dose of caffeine has also been giving you a daily dose of trans fats. Many non-dairy coffee creamers use oils that contain trans fats. Make sure to look at the list of ingredients to find out what type of oil it contains.
  • Meat & DairyTrans fat occurs naturally in meat and dairy products. However, scientists need to do more research on these naturally occurring trans fats enough to know if they’re as harmful as artificial ones. Many believe it is still a good idea to cut down on possible intake by eating lean meats and low-fat dairy products.

Trans-Fat-Free Alternatives

  • Naturally Occurring OilsInstead of eating products with artificial oils, try natural ones like olive oil, corn oil, or canola oil to avoid trans fat.
  • Plant-Based Meat AlternativesEating a few vegetarian meals per week can help you avoid trans fats. These days, meat alternatives are much more than just tofu. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are working to make plant-based meats taste just like the real thing.
  • Plant-Based Dairy AlternativesInstead of traditional non-dairy coffee creamer for your morning cup of joe, try some oat milk or almond milk creamer. These options have zero trans fats and some brands have formulated special “barista” products centered around making your coffee amazing.
  • Foods with Monounsaturated Fat and Omega 3 Fatty AcidsWhen you replace trans-fat foods, make sure you don’t end up eating too many saturated fats: they’re not as bad for you as trans fats, but should still be consumed in moderation. The American Heart Association recommends that saturated fats make up no more than 6% of your calorie intake.

Most of your fats should come from monounsaturated fats, which actually help to reduce LDL cholesterol levels. These are mainly found in olive and peanut oils. Other healthy fat options include omega 3 fatty acids, which you can find in fish and nuts.

Butter, margarine, and oil are all types of fat used in the kitchen. Whether it’s baking, stir-frying, cooking, or using as a spread, fat plays a role in the American diet. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of total calories. Saturated fat is found in butter, red meat, fish, other animal products, full-fat dairy products, and some prepackaged or processed food. The dietary guidelines suggest a shift from saturated fat, which raises LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), increasing the risk of heart disease, to more healthy fats, such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, found mainly in plant-based sources. The body needs fat for growth, vitamin absorption, hormone function, energy, and more vital purposes, but what is the function of fat in food, and is it necessary?

The melt-in-your-mouth, creamy, rich, and smooth taste sensation are all often associated with fat. Fat can blend flavors of ingredients together or enhance the flavor, such as butter. In baked goods, fat also contributes to the tenderness of a product as it prevents flour from absorbing water. Muffins or biscuits with reduced fat are often tougher because the gluten is more developed. One method to counteract the toughness is increased sugar. Fat can also work as a leavening agent. Adding fat to yeast breads helps gluten spread and stretch, creating a larger loaf of bread.

Butter is a fat made from cream and 80% fat with 20% water particles with milk solids. Butter enhances flavor. Butter also melts in the mouth, unlike shortening. Shortening can leave an unpleasant taste after eating pastries or icing. Butter and margarine tend to create thinner and crispier baked goods, specifically cookies, because they have a lower melting point than shortening and contain a small amount of water. Reminder: Butter is high in saturated fat.

What does cream mean? A recipe with the instruction to cream means whipping together butter or shortening with another ingredient, such as sugar. The combination of the two ingredients works in air pockets creating lightness and a natural leavening agent.

Margarine is a fat made from vegetable or other plant-based oils but contains a similar 80:20 ratio as butter. Margarine and butter are used interchangeably. Not all margarine is created equal; some margarine contains trans fats. Margarine with at least 55% oil work best for baking. Oil should be the first ingredient listed on the label. Also, when reviewing the label, look for options with no trans fats–usually the tub margarine has less trans-fat than stick form. Tub margarine is not ideal for baking as they contain more water and less fat.

Oils are fat options that stay liquid at room temperature. Canola and olive oil are just a few heart-healthy monounsaturated fats that work well for cooking, sauteing or baking. Oils help distribute flavor throughout the dish and enhance herbs or other added seasonings. Substituting oil for solid fats such as shortening or butter can cause pastries to be mealy rather than flaky. Substituting oils for solid fats can also result in denser or flat-baked products. When baking with oils, little air is trapped in liquid fat compared to solid, creating a softer and chewier consistency. Oil help transfer heat to food, prevent sticking, helps food retain heat, emulsifies or thickens sauces, and create a crisp texture.

All fat, whether it is olive oil or butter, contains 9 calories (kcals) per gram. Cutting back on fat in baked goods not only reduces the amount of fat in the food but calories as well. Below are simple substitutes for fat in recipes. Remember, every recipe is different, and substitutes may provide a different texture or flavor.

Try a healthier fat substitute:

  • Replace half the fat with applesauce, pureed prunes, mashed bananas, or nonfat yogurt (baking time may be reduced by 25%).
  • Applesauce and yogurt can add moisture to a product, so consider reducing other liquid ingredients.
  • When substituting pureed prunes, an increase in liquid may need to be added as the product may be drier.
  • Bananas have a distinct flavor. When substituting fat with bananas, the banana flavor is masked well in chocolate desserts but not so in sugar cookies.
  • Try a vegetable substitute: substitute half the fat with shredded zucchini or purred pumpkin.
  • Cut fat down by using skim milk instead of whole milk. Using 1 cup skim milk over whole cuts 70 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 28 milligrams of cholesterol.
  • When stir-frying, sautéing, or frying use non-stick cookware, cooking spray, water, or broth to reduce fat.

Finding ways to make healthier favorite recipes is a fun game of trial and error. Start slow with changing ingredients, making small adjustments such as reducing the amount of fat rather than completely eliminating it from the recipe. Healthy substitutes can enhance the flavor rather than hinder the taste just remember the function of the fat in the recipe. Get a group together and take a favorite recipe and try making it a few different ways with the substitutes listed above.

  • Annrose M. Guarino, Ph.D., “Recipe Substitutes” (2011) Human Nutrition and Food, Louisiana State University, Louisiana Cooperative Extension.
  • Gisslen, Wayne. Professional Cooking (2007). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey.
  • Lauterbach, Sharon and Albrecht, Julie A., “NF94-186 Functions of Baking Ingredients” (1994). Historical Materials from University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Paper 411.

Trans fat is a type of dietary fat. Of all the fats, trans fat is the worst for your health. Too much trans fat in your diet increases your risk for heart disease and other health problems.

Trans fats are made when liquid oils are turned into solid fats, like shortening or margarine. These are called partially-hydrogenated oils (PHOs).

Although the food industry has greatly reduced the use of trans fat in recent years, this type of fat may still be found in many fried, packaged, or processed foods, including:

  • Anything fried and battered
  • Shortening and stick margarine
  • Commercially baked cakes, pies, and cookies
  • Refrigerated dough

Animal foods, such as red meats and dairy, have small amounts of trans fats, which is not cause for concern in its natural form. Most trans fats are artificially made and come from processed foods.

Your body does not need or benefit from trans fats. Eating these fats increases your risk for health problems.

Cardiovascular disease risk:

  • Trans fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol.
  • They lower your HDL (good) cholesterol.
  • High LDL along with low HDL levels can cause cholesterol to build up in your arteries (blood vessels). This increases your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Weight gain and diabetes risk:

  • Many high-fat foods such as baked goods and fried foods have a lot of trans fat.
  • Like all fats, trans fat contains 9 calories per gram. Consuming a lot of fat can lead to unwanted weight gain. Excess weight increases the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.

Your body does not need trans fat. You should avoid it or eat as little as possible.

Here are recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

  • You should get no more than 25% to 30% of your daily calories from fats.
  • You should limit saturated fat to less than 10% of your daily calories.
  • You should use nutrition facts labels to select foods with no trans fat whenever possible.

All packaged foods have a nutrition label that includes fat content. Food makers are required to label trans fats on nutrition and some supplement labels. Reading food labels can help you keep track of how much trans fat you eat.

  • Check the total fat in one serving.
  • Look closely at the amount of trans fat in a serving.
  • Look for the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. It means oils have been turned to solids and trans fats. Manufacturers can show 0 grams of trans fat if there are less than 5 grams per serving; often a small serving size shows 0 grams of trans fat, but it still might be in there. If there are multiple servings in a package, then the whole package may contain several grams of trans fat.
  • When tracking trans fat, make sure you count the number of servings you eat in one sitting.
  • Many fast-food restaurants use solid oils with trans fat for frying. Often they provide nutrition information on their menus. If you do not see it posted, ask your server. You also may be able to find it on the restaurant’s website.

Trans fats are found in many processed and packaged foods. Note that these foods are often low in nutrients and have extra calories from both fat and sugar:

  • Cookies, pies, cakes, biscuits, sweet rolls, and donuts
  • Breads and crackers
  • Frozen foods, such as frozen dinners, pizza, ice cream, frozen yogurt, milkshakes, and pudding
  • Snack foods
  • Fast food
  • Solid fats, such as shortening and margarine
  • Nondairy creamer

Not all packaged foods have trans fats. It depends on the ingredients that were used. That is why it is important to read labels.

While it is fine to treat yourself to high-fat foods occasionally, it is best to avoid food with trans fats completely.

You can cut trans fat by substituting healthier foods for less nutritious options. Replace foods high in trans and saturated fats with foods that have polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Here is how to get started:

  • Use safflower or olive oil instead of butter, shortening, and other solid fats.
  • Switch from solid margarine to soft margarine.
  • Ask what type of fats foods are cooked in when you eat out at restaurants.
  • Avoid fried, packaged, and processed foods.
  • Replace meats with skinless chicken or fish a few days a week.
  • Replace whole-fat dairy with low-fat or nonfat milk, yogurt, and cheese.

Trans fatty acids; Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs); Cholesterol – trans fats; Hyperlipidemia – trans fats; Atherosclerosis – trans fat; Hardening of the arteries – trans fat; Hypercholesterolemia – trans fat; Coronary artery disease – trans fat; Heart disease – trans fat; Peripheral artery disease – trans fat; PAD – trans fat; Stroke – trans fat; CAD – trans fat; Heart healthy diet – trans fat

Hensrud DD, Heimburger DC. Nutrition’s interface with health and disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 202.

Mozaffarian D. Nutrition and cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. In: Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Tomaselli GF, Bhatt DL, Solomon SD, eds. Braunwald’s Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 29.

US Department of Health and Human Services; US Department of Agriculture. 2020 – 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 9th Edition. Updated December 2020. Accessed August 26, 2022.

Updated by: Stefania Manetti, RD/N, CDCES, RYT200, My Vita Sana LLC – Nourish and heal through food, San Jose, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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