9 Popular Foods That Are Still Sneakily Hiding Trans Fats
Just hearing the term “trans fats” probably makes you cringe, and experts now agree they’re bad news. Trans fats are a risk factor for multiple heart-related conditions, and more and more people are trying to avoid them. It’s not always easy, though. Some restaurants still fry with oils that have trans fatty acids in them, and many processed foods still contain trans fats for flavor and texture — even though their nutrition labels try to hide them.
The food industry doesn’t make it easy to identify trans fats in food — but you still can. Knowing what trans fats are, and their go-to hiding spots, will help you steer clear of them until they’re gone for good.
What are trans fats?
The American Heart Association distinguishes between two very different types of trans fat: natural and artificial. Natural trans fatty acids are found in small amounts in animal products like meat and milk. In moderation, these are relatively harmless. However, artificial trans fatty acids aren’t so generous. In products like margarine, hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oil to make it solid at room temperature. Too much of these processed fats raises your bad cholesterol significantly, endangering your heart.
Officials now recognize artificial trans fats as unsafe for humans to consume. However, it’s still going to be awhile before all companies are required to remove these ingredients from their foods. In the meantime, here are the products that still contain hidden artificial trans fats — and what you need to know so you can avoid them.
1. Pancake and waffle mixes
Be wary of products with added flavors. While the original version might be trans fat-free, artificial flavorings almost always come with drawbacks. Hungry Jack pumpkin spice pancake and waffle mixes, for example, are made with partially hydrogenated soybean oil — one of trans fat’s infamous pseudonyms — even though their original mixes aren’t. If you still want pumpkin spice-flavored pancakes or waffles without the added trans fats, either use the original mix and add your own flavoring or do so when making pancakes from scratch.
2. Sugar-free coffee creamer
Generally, sugar-free foods and beverages tend to be problematic for a number of reasons. When it comes to certain brands of coffee creamer, you should be more concerned with trans fats than artificial sweeteners or other additives. Coffeemate’s sugar-free coffee creamer has partially hydrogenated oils, making it stand out among its full-sugar counterparts — though not in a good way. If you’re that concerned about sugar in your coffee, consider looking for a different way to sweeten it.
Ever wonder how restaurants make their biscuits so flaky and delicious? You guessed it: trans fats. Some restaurants have yet to phase out their use of partially hydrogenated oils when making these and other products, including KFC. Their biscuits may look and taste great, but they’re definitely not trans fat-free. Skip the biscuits — even their fried chicken is healthier, at least where trans fatty acids are concerned.
4. Microwave popcorn
It turns out staying in for a movie night doesn’t always shield you from the dangers of greasy movie theater popcorn. Some brands of microwave popcorn still contain butter flavorings with traces of partially hydrogenated soybean oils. Orville Redenbacher’s caramel-flavored popcorn is one of those brands. Once again, the extra flavor probably isn’t worth the unique taste. Consider popping your own popcorn and adding your own flavorings — trans fats not included.
Snacking on crackers isn’t much better than reaching for a bag of potato chips, depending on the brand. Many Ritz products, such as Ritz bits peanut butter crackers, contain both partially hydrogenated and fully hydrogenated oils. Fully hydrogenated oils (listed as just “hydrogenated oil” on ingredient lists) do not contain trans fatty acids. However, they are considered saturated fats, which dietary guidelines still suggest should be consumed in moderation. Plain Ritz crackers with trans fat-free peanut butter on top is a slightly better alternative.
6. Pudding cups
Trans fats are added to foods for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s for flavor or even texture. In some cases, it’s to extend a product’s shelf life. Snack Pack chocolate pudding also contains partially hydrogenated oil, primarily to make it last longer. The heavily processed pudding in your pantry isn’t going to spoil anytime soon. Making pudding from scratch won’t preserve it for nearly as long, but you’ll avoid consuming unnecessary trans fats.
Sorry, doughnut lovers — your favorite glazed breakfast isn’t even safe. A Krispy Kreme doughnut contains partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, which comes from the vegetable shortening used during baking. Not all shortening has trans fats in it, but it’s always best to check just to make sure. Trans fats are often added to donuts to produce the texture you love — cake-like, but not crumbly. This is why baked goods like donuts don’t really belong on your daily breakfast menu.
8. Store-bought pies
Do you buy your pies frozen? Maybe it’s time to make a switch. Many of Marie Callender’s pies, including the pumpkin pie variety, contain this scary fat. Trans fat is often added to pies to create that flaky crust we all know and love, but at unnecessary cost. If you’ve never made your own pie crust, it might be something worth trying at home sometime.
9. Frozen dinners
When you’re choosing between brands of microwave dinners, keep a close eye on the ingredients list as you’re making comparisons. Some brands are made with healthy ingredients and very few additives — others, not so much. A Hungry Man salisbury steak meal, for example, contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, but that’s not even all that’s wrong with it. It’s also loaded with added sugars and more artificial flavors than any food should have on its label. A steak dinner in minutes isn’t worth all that.
Why are trans fats so bad for you?
Saturated fat still carries most of the blame for rising rates of cardiovascular disease worldwide. However, unsaturated trans fats cause much more damage than saturated fats do. Research continues to prove diets rich in all types of trans fat increase heart disease risk. Trans fat raises your bad cholesterol, which can build up in your arteries, and lowers your good cholesterol, which helps keep your arteries clear. A buildup of plaque in your arteries, if left untreated, can cause heart attacks as well as strokes, both of which can be life-threatening.
Expert and consumer awareness surrounding the dangers of trans fatty acids has increased significantly over the past decade — and that’s a good thing. The United States Food and Drug Administration, as of 2013, determined trans fats are no longer generally recognized as safe. They released a mandate shortly after, requiring manufacturers to remove artificial trans fats from their products by mid-2018. So while they won’t be around for much longer, it’s still important to know what to look for when shopping for groceries.
How to spot trans fats when the label says there aren’t any
If you’re already pretty mindful about what’s in your food, you know that it takes some detective work to find well-hidden additives you’d rather avoid. Since most restaurants and companies post nutrition and ingredient information online, it has become much easier to spot and avoid hidden trans fats — even when eating out. At the moment, legally, a manufacturer can claim their product has zero trans fat — even if it has up to 0.5 grams of it. Therefore, you’ll have to look a little further than the nutrition label to tell if a food contains trans fat.
You’ll find it on the ingredients list — but it won’t say “trans fat.” It goes by another name: partially hydrogenated oil. If you spot that among a food’s many ingredients, consider putting it back on the shelf. Pretty soon, you’ll encounter artificial trans fats less and less often, until they disappear forever.