All Your Trans Fats Questions, Answered

Trans fats have been vilified by nutritionists, news outlets and public officials for years now. Most recently, the World Health Organization announced its guidance to ban trans fats worldwide by 2023. These harmful fats have certainly earned their reputation, and as an employer, you may be able to improve the health of your workplace by keeping them out.

Here are answers to all your questions about these fatty acids.

What Are Trans Fats?

When we talk about trans fats, we’re referring to the artificially created result of liquid oils getting turned into solids, as in margarine and shortening. Partially hydrogenated oils are the most common source of trans fat found in many packaged foods. Fast food chains often use oils with trans fats for frying, too.

You commonly find hydrogenated oils in packaged snack foods like cookies, cakes, pie crusts and crackers. Hydrogenated oils are a cheap way to give packaged foods better flavor and texture and increase their shelf life.

What’s So Bad About Trans Fats?

The scientific research has overwhelmingly found that trans fats are a major contributor to heart disease. A review in the British Medical Journal, for example, found that trans fatty acids from partially hydrogenated oils increased the risk of developing heart disease and the risk of death. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for men and women in America, and a leading cause of death worldwide.

How Are They Different From Other Fats?

You’ve heard the debate about saturated fats and may be wondering what the difference is between trans fat vs. saturated fat and other fats. The three main types of fat are saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. These fats have different effects on cholesterol levels in your body. Unsaturated fats tend to raise your good cholesterol, while saturated fats raise your bad cholesterol.

The three always come together, but different foods have different amounts of each. For example, butter has a lot of saturated fat and less unsaturated fat, while olive oil has more unsaturated fat and less saturated. Some saturated fat in your diet is fine, but too much is bad for your heart, cautions the American Heart Association.

While small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in meat and dairy, they make up an insignificant portion of most people’s diets. There’s no safe level of industrially derived trans fats.

How Do You Spot Trans Fats?

Nutrition labels can be tricky when it comes to trans fats. As long as the food contains less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving, the label can claim that the food has 0 grams or is trans-fat free. Scan down to the ingredient list, instead. If hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils are listed among the ingredients, then the food contains some level of trans fat. Pay attention to the serving size and how much you’re likely to eat in one sitting.

The good news is that it’s getting easier to find trans-fat-free foods. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer generally recognized as safe. That means the food industry must prove they’re safe to be able to continue using them, a nearly impossible feat given the scientific evidence proving otherwise. The industry has through 2018 to clear its foods of partially hydrogenated oils.

What Can I Do in the Workplace?

Healthier eating patterns are important for keeping your employees healthy and productive — and for keeping health care costs down. Some may be skeptical about whether banning trans fats really has an effect, but evidence is showing that avoiding this ingredient helps. New York City banned the use of trans fats in restaurants in 2006, for example. A recent study found that counties with such a restriction saw a greater reduction in heart attack and stroke than counties without it, giving hope that the bans improve heart health.

While you can’t reasonably control what your employees eat at work or at home, you can take steps to point them toward healthier options. When offering snacks or catering food for events, look at labels and ask about oils. If a restaurant uses oils with trans fat or serves a lot of fried food, choose a place with a healthier menu. Limit cakes, cookies and goodies that commonly include partially hydrogenated oils in favor of snacks like granola bars, nuts or popcorn. Consider making changes to vending machines, too, to promote better food choices.

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You can also teach employees how to read labels and keep unhealthy additives out of their diet. Start by explaining what are trans fats and which foods commonly contain them. Encourage your employees to choose nutrient-dense whole foods like fruits and vegetables, instead.

If all employers did this, we’d be that much closer to hitting the World Health Organization’s 2023 goal.

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