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Trans Fat: The Black Sheep of the ‘Fat’ Family

Nilanjana Bose |
‘Though the general notion is that fat is bad for our health, we should not forget that fat is needed by our body as it is a major source of energy and also contributes to brain development.’
Trans Fat

Image Courtesy: American Heart Association

Fats are like books....‘some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested,’ wrote Francis Bacon. We cannot and should not avoid fats as they are important ingredients of a balanced diet. However, a general notion about fats is that they are bad for the heart and increases the level of cholesterol. But not all fats are bad and some can be chewed and digested as well. Our diet should contain healthy fats; it is about choosing healthy fats over unhealthy ones and including them in the diet.

What are the different types of fats?

Though the general notion is that fat is bad for our health, we should not forget that fat is needed by our body as it is a major source of energy and also contributes to brain development. It is needed to build cell membranes and the covering surrounding our nerves. It also enhances muscle movement and blood clotting. For long-term health, some fats are better than others. There are good fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like olive oil and peanut oil. Then there are saturated fats like whole milk, cheese, chicken and sour cream. Finally there are bad fats, the industrially produced trans fats like microwave popcorn, cookies, margarine and vegetable shortenings.

However, the amount of each of these kinds of fats that we eat, affects our level of cholesterol. The current suggestion in vogue is that fat calories be limited to 30% of the diet.

Among the fats we eat, the majority should be unsaturated fat, which are largely vegetable fats. Saturated fats, which are commonly associated with animal fats, have a lethal effect on our cholesterol levels.

Next in line are trans fats. Natural trans fats, present in small amounts in certain animal products and whole milk, are not considered harmful. But, industrially-produced artificial transfats are the worst kind and should be avoided at any cost. These fats are what makes the ‘fat’ group the ‘villain of nutrients’. These are manufactured by adding Hydrogen to vegetable oil, which increases their shelf life, thus leading to an increase in bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowering of good cholesterol (HDL). These trans fats are largely found in vanaspati oil, margarine, bakery shortenings and in baked and fried foods. As per the Global Nutrition Report 2020, “processed foods, and especially ‘ultra-processed foods’ such as savoury snacks, processed meats, sugar-sweetened drinks, confectionery, frozen desserts, breakfast cereals and dairy products, now comprise a significant share of many diets around the world. They are widely available, cheap and intensively marketed. Such foods are often high in added sugars, trans fats and salt, as well as low in fibre and nutrient-density.”

Why are trans fats termed black sheep

Hydrogenated fats are liquid vegetable oils made creamy when manufacturers convert some of the unsaturated fats into saturated ones through a process called "hydrogenation”, giving rise to trans fats.

Trans fats were found mainly in solid margarines and vegetable shortening. As food companies found the so-called ‘benefits’ of using trans fats in their foods, it appeared in everything from cookies to pastries and from soan papdis to samosas.

Trans-fat consumption is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) and non-communicable diseases or NCDs. NCDs affect people of all ages and countries, but are rampant in low- and middle-income countries. Unhealthy diets contribute to rising blood pressure, blood glucose, lipids, and obesity, all of which are significant metabolic risk factors. Increased levels of LDL – ‘bad cholesterol’ in the blood, raises the risk of CVDs.

Intake of trans fats also increases the risk of obesity, weight gain and diabetes. To highlight the risk of NCDs, some facts from Global Nutrition Report, 2020, would seem pertinent:

  • one third of the world population is overweight or obese

  • under-nutrition coexists with being overweight, obesity and other diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

  • overweight and obesity are increasing rapidly in nearly every country in the world, with no signs of slowing down

  • Availability of cheap and intensively marketed ready-to-eat processed food – also growing fast upper-middle and lower-middle income countries.

  • As per WHO report of 2016, NCDs are estimated to account for 63% of all deaths. The major NCDs which contribute to the mortality rate in India are cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory disease, cancer and diabetes.

Therefore, eating too much trans fats can cause you to gain weight and may also increase risks for type 2 diabetes. Globally, diabetes affects 422.1 million (8.5%) adults, with more men (217.8 million, 9.0%) being affected than women (204.4 million, 7.9%). There are also studies which link high consumption of trans fats to breast cancer, colon cancer and different allergies.

In India, efforts are underway to achieve trans fats-free status, with the FSSAI announcing a limit on trans fats and oils of not more than three per cent by weight on and from January 01, 2021, and not more than two per cent by weight on and from January 01, 2022, in a Draft Notification.

To safeguard health of consumers, trans-fat should be eliminated from Indian food as soon as possible. The momentum against trans-fats is gaining across the world. Therefore, we are demanding immediate notification by the FSSAI to make Indian food free from trans-fatty acids by 2021,” said Ashim Sanyal, COO of Delhi-based NGO, Consumer Voice, which is leading a campaign to eliminate trans fat from foods in India.

Resolve to Save Lives is working with local, national, and global governments to reduce and eliminate exposure to artificial trans fats and increase the availability of healthier alternatives. This can be done through mandatory labelling limits and restrictions.

Healthy alternative

Monounsaturated fats have a single carbon-to-carbon double bond. This structure keeps monounsaturated fats liquid at room temperature. Olive oil, nuts and seeds are rich in monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are more solid than monounsaturated fats but less so than saturated fats. This makes polyunsaturated fats also liquid at room temperature. But in some cases one must be careful with poly unsaturated fats as they are susceptible to becoming rancid.

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