The day I discovered the truth about trans fats: ‘poison’ hidden in plain sight

I thought my pantry was trans fat-free, until I closely read the labels

The culprits: These are the foods I pulled from my kitchen because they contain trans fat; some clearly labeled, some not.

I never understood why trans fats were so bad until I interviewed Dr. Michael Zabel, a cardiologist with Lawrence Memorial Hospital, back in February.

If I had known what I would learn that day, I might have plugged my ears and made loud noises like an obnoxious child while Zabel told me about the horrors of trans fats.

Like so many other harsh realities, it’s an inconvenient lesson to learn. But as he put it bluntly: “Trans fats are basically poison to our cardiovascular system.”

Zabel said our bodies don’t have the enzymes they need to break down trans fats — “so they just get stuck in places in our body, and they cause inflammation and they just wreak havoc.”

As a comparison, people who have lactose intolerance have a deficiency of an enyzme called lactase in their bodies, which means they can’t break down lactose and that’s why they have the symptoms they do, according to the National Institutes of Health. With trans fats, no humans have the enzymes needed to break them down, because they don’t exist.

These foods, a Hormel Compleat microwavable dinner and a box of Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay biscuit mix, both contain trans fats. However, the Compleat contains enough trans fat per serving that it has to be listed in the nutrition facts. The biscuit mix, on the other hand, doesn't have to list an amount of trans fat because there is less than .5 grams in one biscuit.

Kelsey Fortin, a health educator with Kansas University’s Watkins Health Services, explained that trans fats pack a “double-whammy,” lowering our “good” cholesterol (HDL) and raising our “bad” cholesterol (LDL) simultaneously.

“There is no such thing as moderation with trans fat,” Zabel said. “Half a gram of trans fat is half a gram too much.”

That truly opened my eyes, and I started paying a lot more attention to what I was eating. Most of the food I had at home was trans fat-free, with some fairly obvious exceptions.

I thought I was in the clear, but I was wrong. Fortunately, I use an app called My Fitness Pal to keep track of what I eat and make sure I’m staying nutritionally balanced. A few weeks into this lifestyle change, I noticed that I had consumed trans fats without knowing it, and I was furious.

That was when I learned a tough lesson. Fortin said it’s an important one to note.

Crisco shortening is obviously not a health food, but its label may allow for confusion. There's a '0' next to trans fat, but the ingredients clearly list partially hydrogenated palm and soybean oils.

“If a product has .5 grams or less of trans fat, companies do not have to advertise that on the food label,” she said, noting that .5 grams sounds like it’s not much, “… but if I’m eating more than one serving of that product, then it becomes significant.”

That was my problem — I had more than one pancake.

Fortin said labels are tricky because in order to be sure you’re not consuming trans fats, you need to check the ingredients for partially hydrogenated oils or hydrogenated oils. If you find them on the ingredients list, even if a product says it contains zero grams per serving, it does in fact contain trans fats that can start to add up fast. That’s especially true of really unhealthy products that list small serving sizes on the label.

I was shocked and disappointed to look back at a box of Bisquick in my cabinet, which I’d checked for trans fat a mere few days prior, and see PHOs listed in the ingredients.

According to the American Heart Association, trans fats are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid, hence what you see on ingredients lists of foods that contain them: partially hydrogenated oils.

An example of the American Heart Association's seal of approval on a can of soup.

Fortin said this process of hydrogenation cuts manufacturing costs for companies, and it makes foods taste better. It’s a win-win for manufacturers, but a major loss for consumers and public health.

Now hunting down PHOs, the purge of my kitchen cabinets became more complicated and complex. I first eliminated some of the obvious suspects, and the things that had clearly labeled trans fats: the Bisquick that had let me down; the Hormel “Compleat” chicken alfredo that made me feel disgusting when I ate it, even before I learned about PHOs; and the Crisco shortening (which I had only used once for a recipe, anyway).

Then I started digging a little bit deeper. Pillsbury Grands biscuits were another major letdown.

I almost skipped over a couple of jars of Wyler’s beef and chicken bouillon, but I’m glad I didn’t. Its label bears the convenient “0” next to trans fat, but it lists PHOs as an ingredient (along with a number of other questionable substances). Similarly, I was surprised to see that an Italian-style breadcrumbs label lists partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Perhaps equally surprising were some products I expected to contain trans fats that did not. I had some Little Debbie’s Cosmic Brownies lying around, and pleasingly found no PHOs on their label. The same applied to all the cheeses I had at home, and even the processed sandwich meats.

I nearly flew off the hinges when I read the label on my Jif peanut butter and saw “fully hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients list. Fortunately, fully hydrogenated oils on a label actually means they’re saturated fats, Fortin said. They’re certainly not good for you, but they don’t have the same harmful effects that trans fats do.

“If we’re looking at fat overall, consumers should be trying to switch as much as they can to the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat as a healthier alternative,” Fortin said, noting that it is important to monitor how much saturated fat you’re consuming.

It’s also important to note that some trans fats do occur in nature — they’re found in small amounts in some meat and milk products, mainly beef and lamb. However, Fortin said, those naturally occurring ones aren’t nearly the concern that their artificial, man-made counterparts are. Stick to lean cuts and limit your red meat intake to mitigate that problem.

Here are some tips from what I’ve learned through this experience:

If it’s too simple, there might be something wrong with it. This applies to cake and brownie mixes, pre-made biscuit doughs and crusts, and so much more. When possible, it’s better to make what you can from scratch. (In the case of the Bisquick, there’s a “Heart Smart” variety that I think tastes the same, and it’s much less unhealthy.)

In general, foods with “Heart Healthy” stamps on the label are better choices —foods containing PHOs are not eligible for the AHA’s stamp of approval. The association has a 52-page list of approved foods, which was updated as recently as last Monday, on its website, heart.org.

Dining out can be tricky. Restaurants that aren’t national chains usually don’t have full nutrition information available online. Fortin suggested sticking to healthier foods in general, such as grilled options instead of fried, and you can also ask what kind of oil is used in an establishment’s fryers. She said KU’s campus has switched to all trans fat-free fryers, for example.