By now everyone agrees that trans fats are bad for our health.
These fats are created when manufacturers put liquid oils through a process called "hydrogenation." By adding hydrogen atoms, the oils are converted into solid fats with an extended shelf-life, so they can be readily used in commercial baked goods, stick margarines, snacks, and fast foods.
At one time experts believed trans fats were healthier than saturated fats such as butter or lard. In recent years, however, researchers discovered that these man-made fats are linked to many serious health problems.
- A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 estimated that up to 228,000 coronary heart disease events could be avoided by the reduction or elimination trans fats from the American diet.
- Another study of nearly 20,000 women published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2008 reported that women with the highest blood levels of trans fat had twice the risk of breast cancer compared to women with the lowest levels.
- And yet another study by Harvard researchers published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention in 2008 found an increase in prostate cancer in men with the highest blood levels of certain trans fats.
While experts agree that trans fats should minimized in our diet, it's tough to get anyone to agree on the best way to do that.
WebMD turned to leading dietitians to explain a few of the options now being explored by the food industry:
- Using saturated fats such as butter, but in much smaller amounts.
- Inventing another man-made fat that tastes good without ill health effects.
- Using saturated vegetable fats, including palm and coconut oils.
- Using a blend of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated vegetable oils to get the shelf-life, taste, and texture of trans fats.
Trans Fat Alternative 1: Back To Butter
One trans fat alternative being considered is to simply return to using saturated fat from animals - such as butter and lard - but in small amounts.
"I actually think it would be a great idea to have baked goods taste like they were intended to taste, and at the same time, encourage people to eat a lot less of these foods, which I think is the really important message in all of this," says Miriam Pappa-Klein, MS, RD, clinical nutrition manager at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y.
While this won't solve the shelf-life problem -- butter and lard can turn rancid relatively quickly -- she says it can solve the taste and texture problem immediately and give us more reason to enjoy what we eat, but in smaller quantities. As good as that sounds, it's also a solution that leaves some dietitians very concerned.
"Going back to saturated fats is not the answer," says dietitian Samantha Heller, MS, RD, a clinical nutritionist from Fairfield, Conn. "I think we've already proved as a nation that we are not going to eat a little bit. If we could, we probably wouldn't be having this problem with trans fats right now - or be facing an obesity epidemic, particularly in children."
Nutritionist Lona Sandon agrees: "I think it's worth looking for something other than saturated fat. But I think we have to tread carefully over this new ground to ensure we don't make the same mistakes we made with trans fat," says Sandon, a dietitian at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Trans Fat Alternative 2: Invent Something New
The trans fat alternative involves creating an entirely new vegetable oil -- either by rearranging molecules to form a new oil, or by interbreeding various plants to create a new oil.
Kellogg's is one company moving in this direction, using genetically engineered soybeans to create a product low in trans fat but high in taste and convenience.
But dietitians are wary of the concept. After all, Heller notes, we developed the hydrogenation process to make trans fats because researchers thought those fats would be healthier, but they weren't.
"Coming up with a replacement for trans fat is a little like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. And we just hope the rabbit is healthy," Heller tells WebMD.
Trans Fat Alternative 3: Use Saturated Vegetable Oils
Still another option is to reexamine the usefulness of saturated vegetable fats -- including the "tropicals" such as palm, palm kernel, and coconut oils.
Tropical oils have a creamy consistency that can mimic the kind of chemistry found in saturated fats from animal sources, such as butter. Thus, they can offer similar tastes and textures when used in packaged cookies and crackers. But because they come from plants -- and not animals -- some believe their saturated-fat content may not be as bad for health.
"The golden rule has always been to stay away from the tropical oils because, although they are vegetable oils, they are saturated fats," Pappa-Klein tells WebMD. But now, she says this philosophy is changing, as more and more studies begin to show that not all saturated fats are equally bad for health.
"It's possible there could be some redeeming values in these oils after all -- and that they are not as harmful as we once thought," says Pappa-Klein.
Indeed, a study conducted by the French Agricultural Society and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008 suggests that the negative of effects of trans fat may be largely the result of the hydrogenation process - and that trans fats found naturally in foods do not carry nearly the same level of health risks.
Moreover, the Organic Trade Association reports renewed interest in oil that comes from the fruit of the palm -- not the seed, which makes palm kernel oil. Oil from the fruit, they say, is only 50% saturated fat; the rest is 40% polyunsaturated and 10% monounsaturated. In fact, some studies show that the fat in palm oil (known as palmitic acid) may actually help lower blood cholesterol.
Some food manufacturers are turning to tropical oils, but, again, many dietitians are wary. Says Heller: "Any product that reduces trans fat is good, but when trans fats are replaced by saturated fats it's not necessarily a healthy alternative.
Check the nutrition facts panel for the best snapshot of what is contained in the product and choose products with the least amount of saturated fat.
Trans Fat Alternative 4: Use What We Have More Wisely
All three dietitians tell WebMD that the real future of our snack food industry may rest on this fourth option: Blending currently acceptable oil products into formulations that yield the benefits of partially hydrogenated oils -- shelf life, texture, and taste -- while exposing us to fewer risks.
This already seems to be the trend for several forward-thinking companies. Crisco, the long-time manufacturer of fats used in baked goods and frying, now offers a trans fat-free shortening made from a combination of sunflower, soy, and cottonseed oil. There are also multiple brands of trans-fat-free margarines and other products on the shelves today.
Among the first fast food restaurants to move towards the use of healthier fats was Wendy's, which switched to a blend of non-hydrogenated corn and soy oil in 2006. The switch dramatically dropped the trans fat in some of their most popular fast-food items. Case in point: Adult-sized fries went from 7 grams of trans fat to 0.5 grams - and the kids'-size portion dropped to zero. Their fried chicken now contains zero grams of trans fat and 20% less saturated fat.
McDonald's is the latest to jump on the trans-fat free bandwagon, announcing recently the creation of a proprietary blend of canola and soybean oil to be used in cooking up their famous fries. And, they say, it's a product that reduces trans fat without increasing saturated fat - or altering the taste many consumers love. Still, what looks good in the lab - or the test kitchen table - may not necessarily work well for the snack food industry. The reason: Right now the cost of these blends is high, which could mean higher prices in the supermarket aisle.
Of equal concern: Do we have enough vegetables to produce the oil for these blends? By some estimates, it could take up to six years to turn over enough of a new vegetable crop to supply the food industry with what it needs to create blended oils for packaged foods and fast food.
Shopping Savvy for a Post Trans-Fat World
While the food industry searches for the best trans fat alternatives, what can consumers do?
First, read the nutrition label carefully. Products that claim they have 0 trans fat may be high in saturated fat - or simply very high in calories.
Second, understand that you're probably still eating small amounts of trans fats even if the package says 0 trans fats. According to the new FDA guidelines, a product can have up to nearly 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving and still carry the "0" trans fat label.
"This may not seem like much but it can add up," says Heller.
According to the American Heart Association, we should all limit our trans fat intake to less than 1% of our total daily calories. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day that works to about 20 calories from trans fat - less than 2 grams a day.
Since some whole foods - such as dairy and meat - contain naturally occurring trans fats, the only way to stay under that 2 gram a day limit is to buy snack foods, baked goods, margarine, and fast food with absolutely no trans fats, dietitians say.
But don't forget about saturated fat. Evaluate the total fat content, including the amount of saturate fat. Choose foods that have the least amount of saturated fat and that use healthy oils, such as canola oil.
Baking Without Trans Fats
For snacks truly free of trans fats, you might want to try the same solution that Grandma used: Make your own.
For those willing to put in the time and effort, baking your own cakes and cookies from scratch may be the way to go. The trick: Combine a healthy liquid fat -- like grapeseed oil, walnut oil, or vegetable oil spreads-- with a fruit puree like applesauce or prunes for bulk and texture. For healthier french fries, choose an oil without trans fat -- such as canola oil -- and slice your fries from a whole fresh potato.
Be sure to "count the calories and eat in moderation," Heller reminds us. Just because an oil is unsaturated, or a cookie homemade, doesn't mean you won't gain weight.