Zero grams of trans fat? Maybe.

All fats are not created equal. Many fats are actually very good for us—they help repair and protect our cells, and a balance of essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) affect inflammation in our bodies, our mood, and even affect cell signaling processes in our DNA. This means that too much of one fatty acid (like omega-6) can start signaling pro-inflammatory responses throughout the body, while those lovely omega-3s have anti-inflammatory effects. Why should we care about inflammation? Well, the most obvious effects of inflammation happen in the heart and blood vessels, and can cause coronary artery disease, heart disease, and circulation problems, but many studies out there are starting to link chronic inflammation to some cancers.

Trans fats are known as the really bad fats. They are not essential fatty acids, and there are many studies that link the consumption of these types of fats to coronary artery disease. Most of us know that consuming trans fat is not good for us, so you would think the food policies and regulations would reflect the evidence. Turns out, the regulations over these fats in our country actually allows for large food companies to produce foods with trans fat and misinform consumers about the amount of trans fat in their products.

The current FDA regulation on trans fat requires a product to have “less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving” if that company chooses to put the label “0 grams trans fat per serving” on their package. So even though a product may say it has zero grams of trans fat per serving, this may not be the case. And, depending on how many servings of, say, 0.4 grams of trans fat you are having, it may not be so good. It’s also been shown that pregnant mothers who consume trans fat, end up having trans fat in their breast milk.

Some trans fats occur naturally in some foods, like animal products. These however, are not all trans fats, and are not all bad for you. The trans fat found in meat and dairy products are actually called “conjugated linoleic acid”, or CLA. This type of fat is actually part trans fat and part “cis fatty acid”, which may even be beneficial for us. However, it seems that if we take the CLA out of the animal product and use it alone (in a supplement), it does not produce the same beneficial health effects, and may even be more detrimental to our health.

Although many large companies have decided to remove or reduce the amount of trans fat in their products since 2003, many fast food restaurants still use products with trans fats. Many consumers have taken a stand against trans fats, and the pressure has created many new regulations in certain areas of the United States, banning or limiting the use of these fats.

One simple solution to avoiding trans fats would be to not eat fast food, and eat whole, fresh foods whenever possible, using your own oils. If this isn’t possible for you and you need to pick up those pre-packaged processed foods, turn the package over and read the ingredients. Anything that says “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening” on it is a trans fat. So, “partially hydrogenated soybean oil”, for example, contains trans fats. These fats may even be in products you wouldn’t expect– like peanut butter, crackers, or cookies. Most fast food places do actually have their ingredients online somewhere—you just have to search for it. Don’t trust that “Zero grams of trans fat per serving” label!