Trans Fats – What You Can Learn From a Food Label Ingredient List

One Sunday morning I was roaming around the local farmer’s market chatting with various vendors.  One vendor who was selling his breads and pastries asked me several questions about Trans fats:

 1.   How can the label on Crisco shortening say that there is no Trans fat in their product yet at the same time declares that there are partially hydrogenated fats? 

 2.   If Crisco shortening contains only oils how can it be solid at room temperature?

Crisco Ingredient List

 “SOYBEAN OIL, FULLY HYDROGENATED PALM OIL, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED PALM AND SOYBEAN OILS, MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, TBHQ AND CITRIC ACID (ANTIOXIDANTS)”. 

High Level Overview of Listed Ingredients

Soybean oil and palm oil are oils that supply calories and they can have some Trans fat depending how they are processed.

Monoglycerides and diglycerides are also considered fats structurally.  They are not distributed widely in nature and are usually listed no higher than fourth on a food label. This means that they are added in such small amounts that they contribute little to calories in the diet.  Mono- and diglycerides are added to foods to make bakery products taste smooth and to prevent the oil from separating out in foods such as peanut butter.  They will not be the culprits in producing Trans fats.

TBHQ and Citric Acid are antioxidants that are added to retard spoilage thus increasing the shelf life of the product.  These antioxidants will not produce Trans fats.

So that leaves us with investigating the soybean and palm oil – the only oils that could possibly contain Trans fat.

Palm Oil and Soybean Oil

Palm Oil is naturally more saturated than most oils (See the chart below).  It can withstand high heat without breaking down.  Don’t mistake palm oil with palm kernel oil though.  They both come from the fruit of the palm tree but palm oil is found in the fleshy portion of the fruit, whereas palm kernel oil is found in the kernel or the seed of the fruit.  Palm oil is 50% saturated fat and 50% unsaturated fat; palm kernel oil is approximately 82% saturated fat and 18% unsaturated. They also have different compositions of fatty acids (fatty acids make up fats and oils). Both palm oil and palm kernel oil are semi-solid at room temperature. 

Liquid soybean oil is low in saturated fat, contains no Trans fat, and is high in poly- and monounsaturated fats.

Facts about Fats, Oils and Trans fats

Fact 1: Oils and Fats are triglycerides; all triglycerides are made up of fatty acids.  The fatty acids can be saturated, polyunsaturated or monounsaturated.

Fact 2:  Oils contain more unsaturated fat in general and fats contain more saturated fat. There are exceptions; tropical Oils (Palm, Palm Kernel, and Coconut) are highly saturated oils.  The more unsaturated fat the more liquid it is.  The opposite is also true; the more saturated fat the more solid.

Fact 3: Unsaturated fats are considered healthier than saturated fats. Of the unsaturated fats the monounsaturates are considered the healthiest.

Fact 4:  Oils spoil more quickly than fats that are solid, and oils aren’t always good for bakingFats have a longer shelf life and they work better in many products especially baked ones.

Fact 5:  An oil that is liquid can be made into a solid by the process of hydrogenation (adding hydrogen).  Only unsaturated fats can be hydrogenated. Hydrogenation can either be partial or full.  Only partial hydrogenation produces Trans fats. 

Fact 6:  Zero “O” Trans fat does not actually mean that the product does not contain any Trans fat at all.

Apply the facts to Crisco

Crisco has taken vegetable oils and changed them to solids by hydrogenation.  The product is then diluted with soybean oil to give it just the right amount of solidness or softness.  The product is composed of 100% vegetable oil.  There is little Trans fat because not very much partial hydrogenation is required.  The palm oil is already semi-solid even without hydrogenation.  The Trans fat produced has to be below 0.5 grams per serving because that is the tolerance level that is allowed by regulation.  So even though some Trans fat is produced, if it is under the tolerable limit of 0.5 grams/serving the product label can indicate no Trans fat.

The good, the bad and the ugly

At one time there was a reason to hydrogenate oils.  Butter was expensive; vegetable oils were plentiful and cheap.  Hydrogenation had been discovered at the end of the 1800’s.  The tool (hydrogenation) was put to use by Crisco in 1911 to produce a vegetable shortening that set the stage for further investigations into hydrogenation of different oils.  When butter was rationed during WWII margarine (from hydrogenation of vegetable oils) became very popular and it was thought to be very healthy.  Other food products containing hydrogenated fats began to increase in numbers.  See the list below.

The bad began to happen in the 1990’s when research began indicating that Trans fats had some serious health risks.  There were some suggestions earlier that Trans fats were a problem especially in causing heart disease.  In the early 2000’s there was a mounting push for regulations to set a limit as to how much Trans fat could be in food.

Guidelines were set.   The American Heart Association  recommended that Trans fat intake be kept to less than 1 percent of total calories. For example, if you need 2,000 calories a day, you should consume less than 2 grams of Trans fat.  The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the World Health Organization (WHO) also recommend that Trans fats be limited to less than 1% of overall energy intake

Debate starts.  Critics say that the 0.5 gram per serving threshold is too high to refer to a food as free of Trans fat. This is because a person eating many servings of a product, or eating multiple products over the course of the day may still consume a significant amount of Trans fat.

The ugly:  Debate escalated and continues: Some experts say that all the focus on Trans fats takes away from the real focus of eating too much fat overall, especially given the overwhelming incidence of obesity   Saturated fat and too much total fat the experts say, is the real culprit.  In the meantime our food supply continues to have some Trans fats.  And the research continues to highlight the negative health effects of Trans fats.

Other experts are concerned that the addition of partially hydrogenated palm oil may not be an acceptable alternative.  Palm oil itself has been accused of being a risk for heart disease.

Where the Trans fats are found

  • Spreads. Especially hard margarine..
  • Packaged foods, especially cake and pancake mixes.
  • Instant soups and noodle kits.
  • Fast foods such as French fries and fried chicken.
  • Frozen food. Pies, waffles, pizzas and breaded fish.
  • Baked goods. Doughnuts, muffins, cakes, etc.
  • Crackers. Shortening provides the crispy texture.
  • Breakfast cereal and energy bars.
  • Cookies and candy.
  • Toppings and dips. Non-dairy creamers, whipped toppings, gravy mixes and salad dressing.

East meet West in the Trans Fat Muddle

Consider your individual needs and preferences:  The western scientific investigative approach is responsible for helping to build a sustainable, healthy, and safe food supply for our society.  Individually we need to understand what is healthy and what might be suspect.  Only then can we be responsible for what we, as individuals choose to eat.  This is the eastern approach.

Consider our history as a species as well as our future.  Many of the fats and oils (including olive oil, coconut and palm oils) that are used for cooking or sautéing and that will withstand fairly high temperatures are those that have been in use for thousands of years.   Shouldn’t we stop to consider how these natural products have evolved along with the human species to be able to be used effectively by our physiological processes?

Know that there are forces beyond the purely scientific ones that drive what we eat and what our food contains.   Politics of the world market (both east and west) determine what fats and oils are consumed in greatest quantity and consequently which ones will show up in the ingredients list of processed food.   Right now palm oil and soybean oil are number one and two in consumption.    

Consider the change in food choices over the years.  What drives those changes and what are in the foods that now go into what we daily eat?  

Try to find natural alternatives to products that contain Trans fats. For example, try mixing butter with canola or olive oil.  This gives a less saturated fat and has no Trans fat. Another example – blend sesame oil, coconut oil and olive oil to give an oil that naturally contains special heat-activated antioxidants and is at the same time a very stable cooking oil.

Look somewhere between the pure Yin and the pure Yang.  Fats are not all bad or all good.  Fats and oils are a natural component of our diet and need to be used and consumed appropriately and respectfully.  Fat is a major source of energy for the body and aids in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K.  Fats and oils provide taste, consistency, and stability and help you feel full.   Eliminating them from the diet is not the best path.  Choosing among the variety that is available is the best way to ensure balance. 

Next Post:  Let’s talk about those tropical oils.  What’s good and what’s bad.  It may not be what you think.