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The Health Dangers of Eating Trans Fats

Increase your understanding of trans fatty acids -- harmful artificial fats that the Federal Government now requires to appear on nutrition labels -- with the help of University of Maryland Medical Center registered dietitian Mary Beth Sodus.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration shed light on a potentially serious health threat recently when it announced that products containing trans fatty acids require stringent nutritional labeling starting in 2006. And one city in the U.S. has gone further. In December 2006, New York City became the first city in the nation to ban artificial trans fats at all restaurants. Restaurants in the city will be required to eliminate the artificial trans fats from all of their foods by July 2008.

Trans fats can be natural or artificial. Small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in beef and dairy foods. Artificial trans fats are made when hydrogen gas reacts with oil. They can be found in cookies, crackers, icing, potato chips, stick margarine and microwave popcorn. About 80 percent of trans fat in American’s diet comes from factory-produce partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Trans fats are artificial fats made when hydrogen gas reacts with oil. They can be found in cookies, crackers, icing, potato chips, margarine and microwave popcorn.

Many manufacturers started including trans fats in their processed foods about 20 years ago to prolong their products' shelf life, but public health experts warn that these kinds of fats clog arteries and cause obesity.

"Numerous studies have found that trans fats raise our risk of heart disease," said Mary Beth Sodus, a registered dietitian at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "They can also contribute to an increase in total cholesterol levels and a drop in the healthy HDL cholesterol. These man-made fats are much worse for you than any other natural fat, even the saturated fats found in butter and beef."

Below are Sodus's answers to some frequently asked questions about trans fatty acids:

What are Trans Fatty Acids?

They are man-made or processed fats, which are made from a liquid oil. When you add hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil and then add pressure, the result is a stiffer fat, like the fat found in a can of Crisco. Trans fats are also called hydrogenated fats.

Why are Trans Fats Bad for You?

Trans fats pose a higher risk of heart disease than saturated fats, which were once believed to be the worst kind of fats. While it is true that saturated fats -- found in butter, cheese and beef, for example -- raise total cholesterol levels, trans fats go a step further. Trans fats not only raise total cholesterol levels, they also deplete good cholesterol (HDL), which helps protect against heart disease.

What Harm do Trans Fats do to the Body?

The stiffer and harder fats are, the more they clog up your arteries. Artificial trans fats do the same thing in our bodies that bacon grease does to kitchen sinks. Over time, they can "clog the pipes" that feed the heart and brain, which can lead to heart attack or stroke risk.

According to the comprehensive Nurses' Health Study -- the largest investigation of women and chronic disease -- trans fats double the risk of heart disease in women.

Why Have Trans Fatty Acids been Put in So Many Food Products?

No human body has any need for these man-made fats. Food manufacturers started putting them in products because they allow for a longer shelf life. Crackers, for example, can stay on the shelf and stay crispy for years in part because of the hydrogenated fats in them.

Are Trans Fats Bad for Kids?

Trans fats increase the risk for heart disease. Therefore, children who start at age 3 or 4 eating a steady diet of fast food, pop tarts, commercially prepared fish sticks, stick margarine, cake, candy, cookies and microwave popcorn can be expected to get heart disease earlier than kids who are eating foods without trans fats.

While a person may not get heart disease until they are in their 40s, some of our research here at the University of Maryland has shown that kids as young as 8, 9 and 10 already have the high cholesterol and blood fats that clog arteries. By starting healthy eating habits early, parents can help their children avoid heart attacks and stroke.

What Steps Can Parents Take to Limit Trans Fats?

    Model healthy eating behaviors, make healthy choices available.

    • Try new fruits, vegetables, bean, chicken and other foods and recipes. Cook or prepare food more often as a family. Guard against fatigue because a tired parent can rely too heavily on fast foods or highly processed foods.

    Learn how to identify high fat and trans fat foods.

    • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring food labels to list trans fats in January 2006. Trans fats are listed under the Fat category of the Nutrition Facts panel. Many foods are now formulated to be trans fat free. Naturally low fat foods are generally the best: fruits of all types, vegetables, chicken, turkey, fish, beans, whole grains, breads and some cereals. These foods can be fixed in fun ways that your children will enjoy.

    Learn the categories of foods that are likely to have trans fats:

    • Fast foods - fried chicken, biscuits, fried fish sandwiches, French fries, fried apple or other pie desserts
    • Donuts, muffins
    • Crackers
    • Many cookies
    • Cake, cake icing, and pie
    • Microwave popped corn
    • Canned biscuits
    • International and instant latte coffee beverages parents are more likely to use

    Be a smart shopper

    • Don't shop when you're hungry because you're more likely to make poor choices and buy on impulse when you shop on an empty stomach. If you take the children with you, give them a satisfying snack before you go. Stand firm in your plans about what you will and will not purchase.
    • Shop the perimeter of the store. Most of the processed foods, which contain a lot of trans fats, are on the inner isles of the supermarket.
    • Have a plan for quick meals, snacks and lunch items you plan to purchase. Buy foods that you can fix quickly at home such as stir-fry packages, rice or couscous, chicken and salmon you can grill.
    • When you do purchase processed foods, choose the lower fat versions of crackers, cereals and desserts.
    • Finally, remember that you are responsible for the quality of the foods you bring into the house for your children. Children eat the foods that are available to them.

Accessed: May 4, 2008 at

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