The truth is that the trans fats found in some commercial products are just as dangerous or even more dangerous than saturated fats, which were for many years regarded as the major cause of heart attacks.

Alarming research has found that eating just a little too much trans fat can dramatically increase your chances of having a heart attack or getting diabetes and even cancer.

What’s more, many people are completely unaware of the dangers lurking in certain foods on our shop shelves. To make matters worse, the Australian food industry isn’t required to disclose the amount of trans fats their products contain on the labels.

Researchers at Harvard University in America have proved that having just half to one teaspoon more trans fat than usual (one teaspoon instead of half a teaspoon a day) will increase your risk of having a heart attack by 50%. Their study was done on a group of 33,000 women over six years as part of the extensive Nurses’ Health Study.

Even though most Australians’ diets fall within the healthy range of trans fatty acid intake (less than 1% of the diet), some of us are still consuming way too much. If you regularly reach for the processed foods on the supermarket shelf, or if you generously spread hard brick margarine onto your toasties, chances are that you’re at risk.

A short history of trans fats


Trans fats are man-made fats found not only in margarines but in a great many processed foods. Hard margarine, which is used in bakery- or factory-manufactured pastries, turn commercial muesli bars, cookies, rusks, crackers, pies, croissants, doughnuts, Danish pastries and even microwave popcorn into a serious health risk.

Ironically, trans fats were developed with the best intentions. When research in the late ’70s showed saturated animal fats might lead to high cholesterol and heart disease the food industry started looking at vegetable oils as a replacement for butter. But especially the good oils – such as canola and other oils that contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids – quickly became rancid (a result of oxidation).

The industry started using hydrogenation, a chemical process by which hydrogen is bubbled through vegetable oils to increase their shelf life. It also changes them from a liquid to a solid state.

Thanks to hydrogenation, oils can be heated over and over. It also improves the taste and texture of food and keeps it fresh for longer. Chips and croissants are crisper and creamy foods even creamier.

Trans fats were therefore regarded as ideal for baking and frying. That was until a number of big research studies in the ’90s began to demonstrate that consuming trans fats involves serious health risks. Today we know it is an extremely dangerous food component – and the quickest way to a heart attack. Trans fats should not be used in food at all.

In most Western countries the bell began to toll for trans fats shortly after this discovery. In Australia, trans fats were gradually faded out of a great many margarines and commercial products since 1996 – a voluntary step by proactive food manufacturers.

However, according to a January 2013 report by ABC News (www.abc.net.au), trans fats have still not been entirely phased out of the country’s food supply. In addition, no real progress has been made to introduce labelling of trans fats on the nutritional panels of products that contain risky amounts of this fatty acid.

What to eat and what to avoid


In many instances, this leaves it up to you, the consumer, to track your trans fatty acid intake. Here’s a guide in terms of what you should and shouldn’t eat:

Spreads


Yes to butter or margarine indicating it contains less than 2% trans fats (also indicated as 2g of trans fats per 100g). Avoid bricks of hard margarine and be careful about soft margarine without labelling, which may indicate the presence of trans fats.

Oils


Yes to cold-pressed virgin olive oil; canola oil; sun?ower oil; cottonseed oil; a blend of sun?ower, canola, cottonseed and/or soy oils. Avoid oil that is partially hydrogenated.

Baked goods


Yes to baked goods made with butter or margarine containing less than 2% trans fats. No to packets of commercial cookies, rusks or chocolate without trans fat labelling or where neither palm oil nor safe margarine was used. Avoid microwave popcorn – rather choose popcorn cooked in a good vegetable oil.

For deep-frying


Use only fresh, clean vegetable oil. Canola oil is best. Avoid all food fried in partially hydrogenated oil. Any oil that has been used over and over may contain cancer-causing acrylamide.

Restaurants


Move on if the manager cannot assure you that partially hydrogenated oils were not used in the preparation of their food.

In general


Try to avoid processed foods (especially foods that are high in fat) and try to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, low-fat meat and dairy, and wholegrains.

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