Lists and How to Avoid Them

Lists and How to Avoid Them

Trans fats are an unhealthy type of fat found in some foods that can contribute to high LDL (bad) cholesterol and low HDL (good) cholesterol. Eating too many trans fats may increase your risk of developing heart disease.

While trans fats can be found naturally in some products like meat and dairy, it’s unclear whether these types of trans fats present a health risk. Most unhealthy trans fats come from industrially produced partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). These have been effectively banned in the United States since 2021, but can still be found in fried foods and may still be present in small amounts in some processed foods.

This article explains what trans fats are, foods that contain trans fats, and ways to reduce your intake.

 boonchai wedmakawand / Getty Images

What Is Trans Fat?

Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat. Some trans fats occur naturally in animal products, while others are present in industrially produced PHOs. PHOs are added during cooking or during the manufacturing process to help extend a product’s shelf life. They also help some foods taste more satisfying.

Trans fats that are artificially produced and added to prepackaged foods or commercially prepared deep-fried foods raise levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and reduce levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. This can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

There is also some evidence that artificial trans fats may induce inflammation, which can also contribute to cardiovascular disease. Because of this, healthcare professionals recommend limiting your intake of foods with trans fats.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined in 2015 that PHOs are not among the ingredients that are “generally recognized as safe.” The FDA gave manufacturers several years to find alternatives, finally setting a compliance date of January 1, 2021.

It is unclear whether naturally occurring trans fats pose the same health risks as trans fats from PHOs. Some studies have found that naturally occurring trans fats may be better for HDL levels, but worse for LDL levels. However, the American Heart Association says, “There have not been sufficient studies to determine whether these naturally occurring trans fats have the same bad effects on cholesterol levels as trans fats that have been industrially manufactured.”

Foods With Trans Fat

Trans fats in commercially processed foods are most commonly introduced through PHOs during the manufacturing process. Foods made with partially hydrogenated oils should be avoided, due to their ability to raise cholesterol and your risk of heart disease.

Processed Foods

The FDA effectively banned companies from manufacturing foods with trans fats, but if you have food that was processed prior to 2021 on your shelf, those items might still contain artificially produced trans fats.

Some processed foods still contain small amounts of trans fats. In fact, products that contain fewer than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can be labeled as having 0 grams of trans fat. If you eat a lot of these types of food, that can still add up to a significant intake. 

  • Some spreads—such as margarine spreads or peanut butter
  • Some snack foods—such as chips, crackers, and cookies
  • Nondairy creamer
  • Pre-prepared cake frostings
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Commercially pre-prepared products, such as pie crusts, pizza dough, and cookie dough
  • Some pastries, donuts, and pies

Fried and Fast Foods

While bakeries and restaurants, including fast food giants like McDonald’s, have reduced or eliminated their use of trans fat ingredients, trans fats can still develop during the frying process. So, you should try to limit your intake of any type of deep-fried food.

Deep-fried foods such as French fries, tater tots, onion rings, and breaded, deep-fried chicken or seafood are obvious potential sources of trans fats. However, trans fats may also be present in other fast foods, such as:

  • Pastries, pie crusts, and other desserts
  • Breakfast foods
  • Biscuits

Naturally Occurring Trans Fats

Other products contain naturally occurring trans fats. It is unclear what if any impact these types of trans fats have on human health. Food products derived from ruminant animals like sheep and cows may contain this type of trans fat. Examples include:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Butter
  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt

Trans Fat-Free Foods

Most foods are naturally free of trans fats, with the exception of foods made from animals that naturally produce trans fats, such as milk and meat products. While these foods contain small amounts of trans fats, most other foods do not contain trans fats unless they have been deep-fried or processed.

How to Avoid Trans Fats

The American Heart Association recommends limiting—and even avoiding—the consumption of trans fats in a healthy diet. Although most food products should be free of trans fats, it’s possible that they still lurk in some types of foods. To protect your heart and overall health, keep these tips in mind.

Check the Nutrition Label

Check the food labels for trans fats. Because of the risk that artificial trans fats pose in increasing your risk of heart disease, the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to list the amount of trans fats per serving on food package labels in 2006.

Labels are required to list “trans fat” or “trans” on a separate line under the saturated fat line. However, if the amount of trans fats per serving is less than 0.5 grams, food manufacturers may note that the food is “not a significant source of trans fat.”

Avoid Fried Food

Avoiding foods that may contain trans fats from cooking is important. These foods are also high in calories and saturated fat—both of which can have a negative impact on your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

How much trans fat should you have per day?

There is no standard recommendation for daily intake of trans fats. The American Heart Association simply says you should try to reduce your intake of hydrogenated vegetable oils and eat lean meats without added trans fats. 

Summary

Trans fats are naturally present in some animal products, but most unhealthy trans fats are artificially produced and added to foods. These trans fats can increase bad cholesterol and reduce good cholesterol, which can raise your risk of heart disease.

Although the FDA effectively banned trans fats in 2021, some processed foods may still contain small amounts. They may also be present in deep fried foods and fast foods. Reducing your consumption of these types of foods can help decrease your risk of heart disease.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Heart Association. Trans fats.

  3. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Facts about trans fats.

  4. Food and Drug Administration. Trans fat.

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  6. American Heart Association. The skinny on fats.

  7. Food and Drug Administration. Small entity compliance guide: trans fatty acids in nutrition labeling, nutrient content claims, and health claims.

By Jennifer Moll, PharmD

Jennifer Moll, MS, PharmD, is a pharmacist actively involved in educating patients about the importance of heart disease prevention.