Ask Mickey: What’s the Real Deal with Trans Fats?

Mickey

Mickey

We know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. Making good food choices helps you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. In the Ask Mickey column, a team of Bon Appétit Management Company dietitians and chefs offers tips on “chewing the right thing” and answers your nutrition questions. (Mickey, aka Michelina, is a particular feisty Italian grandmother who continues to inspire us.)

Email your questions and feedback to nutrition@cafebonappetit.com or text (650) 308-9594.

What’s the current deal with trans fats? I know they’re bad for me, but I’ve also heard they were banned. Do I still have to worry about them?

No need to worry about trans fats, just take some simple steps to reduce the amount of them you consume! This begins with choosing more fresh, seasonal, plant-based meals, such as those featured at Bon Appétit cafés, rather than relying on convenience and highly processed foods. That makes it both tasty and healthy to shift away from consuming these dangerous fats.

Trans fats appear rarely in natural, whole ingredients, but they are more common in packaged foods. Through a chemical process called “partial hydrogenation,” unsaturated fats are turned into trans fats in order to impart more qualities that are desirable for packaged food, such as being less likely to spoil. It’s true that these fats don’t have a place in the foundation of a healthy diet, though, as research has linked them to increased risk of heart disease. In fact, trans fats are now viewed as being worse for heart health than saturated fats, and there is no recommended safe level of trans fat consumption.

Because of the negative impact on health, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required the amount of trans fats to be identified on packaged foods’ Nutrition Facts Panels. There is a loophole, though – if there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving, the label can round down and state it as 0g. Over the course of a day of eating several snacks that each may have just under the half-gram limit, this can add up to too much trans fats.

To avoid even these traces of trans fat, various states have enacted more stringent regulations against the use of trans fats in settings such as restaurants, but it has been inconsistent on a national level. Most recently, the FDA has proposed a total ban, in which trans fats would lose their status as food components that are approved as “generally recognized as safe.” If this preliminary ruling is adopted, it will become a national standard.

Moving forward, consumers can expect to see fewer and fewer trans fats in processed foods, and following a few recommendations will further reduce consumption of these dangerous chemicals. Selecting more fresh, unprocessed foods such as seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean (especially plant-based) proteins automatically limits the amount of trans fats in your diet. Read food labels and stay away from those that include those still allowed trace amounts, indicated by the presence of  “partially hydrogenated fat” on the ingredients list. These steps, together with increasing government regulation, will ensure that you can cross trans fats off the list of things to worry about!