Fat is an important part of any healthy diet. It provides essential fatty acids and energy, and helps the body absorb needed vitamins like A, D and E. To function properly, our body needs a steady minimum intake of fatty acids.

But not all fats are made equal. What about trans fats? Are they really as bad as they say?

What is a trans fat?

There are four types of fatty acids found in food: polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated and trans. Trans fats are naturally present at low levels in some animal-based food such as dairy products, beef and lamb, but they can also be formed when liquid oils are processed into semi-solid fats such as shortening and hard margarine. In fact, trans fats are found in all processed food. Along with saturated fat, they produce that sought-after “melt in your mouth” texture of prepared food.

Back when our diets contained only natural trans fats in small quantities, the health risks were virtually nil. But nowadays, synthetic trans fats are ubiquitous in processed food, making them much more of a health concern. According to the World Health Organization, trans fats should make up less than 1% of our daily caloric intake – which is far from the case for the majority of North Americans.

How can you tell if food contains trans fat?

Trans fats are found in products like prepared meals, cookies, pastries, pie crusts, sweets and commercial chocolates, chips, crackers, cereals, margarine made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil, shortening, etc. Their ranking in the list of ingredients indicates just how much trans fat the food contains (the closer they are to the top of the list, the more trans fat the product has). Also remember that if the ingredients include “hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “partially hydrogenated,” the product contains trans fat.

Tips for reducing your consumption of trans fat

  • Read the product labels. The Nutrition Facts Table on packaged food must specify the content of 13 core nutrients, including trans fat (the less it contains the better!). Did you know that Canada was the first country to require that the amount of trans fat in pre-packaged food be included in Nutrition Facts Table?
  • Consult Canada’s Food Guide for information about making healthy eating choices. Among other things, it recommends that you decrease your daily consumption of saturated and trans fats and increase your daily number of servings of fruits and vegetables, fish, fibre and legumes.
  • Avoid products containing partially hydrogenated oil such as shortening, baked cakes, prepared puddings, pastries and puff pastries as well as fried or breaded food.
  • Cook as often as possible. Make your own cakes and snacks from scratch. You’ll know exactly what is in them and in what quantities.
  • Replace fats like shortening and oils containing trans and saturated fats with oils high in monounsaturated fat like olive or canola oil and polyunsaturated fats like soybean, sunflower or corn oil. Also remember that while saturated and trans fats often increase the risk of heart disease, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats lower this risk.

In short, completely eliminating bad fats from our diet can be very hard to do – partly because they are not always clearly identified but also because they are found in some of our favourite food (that we’re not quite ready to give up!) But making even small changes for the better in your diet can have a huge positive impact on your health and that of your family.