Trans fats have received much interest in recent years. While it is clear that we all need to include some fat in our diets to remain healthy, not all fats are equal.

What are trans fats?

Trans fats, are fats present in small amounts in a wide range of foods. Health concerns about these fats has recently led to many manufacturers reducing the amounts of trans fats in foods. In 2006 United Biscuits, who produce McVities, KP and Jacobs ranges, removed trans fats from their products. Marks & Spencer as well as many other supermarket chains, also banned the use of trans fats in own brand products.

Which foods contain trans fats?

Naturally-occurring trans fats are found in small amounts in dairy products, for example cheese and cream, and also beef, lamb, and products made from these foods. All trans fats may be potentially unhealthy, no matter what their origin, but if they are present or consumed at low levels, they are unlikely to have a significantly harmful effect.

Trans fats may also be produced when ordinary vegetable oils are heated to fry foods at very high temperatures and this is one reason why takeaway foods can sometimes be high in trans fats. Foods that are produced from or use hardened vegetable oils as an ingredient typically contain some trans fats (for example, biscuits, pies, cakes and fried foods).

How do I know if a food is high in trans fats?

You need to check ingredients lists for partially hydrogenated fats.

A ‘hydrogenated fat’ does not contain trans fat, only ‘partially hydrogenated fats’ contain trans fats. If a food product contains partially hydrogenated fats or oils, it will almost certainly contain trans fats too, and the higher up the list the fat or oil appears, the more trans fats the product is likely to contain.

Many manufacturers now avoid using hydrogenated fats or have reduced the amount of trans fats in their products to very low levels.

Should I worry about trans fats?

Trans fats, like most saturated fats, raise blood cholesterol levels, particularly levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Trans fats can also reduce the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, as well as increase levels of another form of blood fat called triglycerides. All of these effects of trans fats can raise your risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). Gram for gram, trans fats appear to increase risk of CHD more than saturated fats, and so are potentially worse for our health.

Take home message……

The good news is that in the UK intakes of trans fats are on average lower than the guidelines. In the last 20 years, levels of trans fat in food have reduced considerably.

However as part of a healthy diet, you should aim to keep the amount of trans fats to a minimum. In general trans fats may be found in cakes, biscuits, hard margarines, takeaways, pastry, pies and fried foods, all of which are the types of foods to limit when choosing a healthy, balanced diet.