What Are They and Foods To Avoid

What Are They and Foods To Avoid

Trans fat is a type of dietary fat that can be dangerous for your health in excess. Eating a high-trans-fat diet may increase the risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes.

The World Health Organization (WHO) advises limiting trans fat intake to less than 1% of your daily calories. For example, you would aim for less than 2.2 grams of trans fat daily if you follow a 2,0000-calorie diet.

The Food and Drug Administration requires trans fat to appear on nutrition labels if a serving contains more than 0.5 grams. In other words, food manufacturers and restaurants can list trace trans fat as zero grams. Multiple servings of food with a little less than 0.5 grams can add up to a significant intake.

Some animal products naturally have trace amounts of trans fats. In contrast, the most prominent trans fat offenders are baked goods, fried foods, and some chain restaurant fare. Here are 19 popular foods that may be hidden sources of trans fat.

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Trans fat is a type of dietary fat. Fat is an essential part of your diet that gives you energy. For example, your body burns carbs during physical activity, but after 20 minutes, it starts burning fats. Although you need to eat fats, some—including trans fat—can be harmful. 

Trans fats occur naturally in some animal products. Trans fats also include partially-hydrogenated oils (PHOs), or vegetable oil that have become solid fats. Known as hydrogenation, food manufacturers use that process to keep foods fresh.

You may find trans fats, in the form of PHOs, in foods like:

  • Pastries
  • Snacks
  • Fried foods
  • Shortening and margarine 
  • Some vegetable oils

Research has found that trans fats have harmful effects on health, including:

  • Boosts LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
  • Lowers HDL (“good”) cholesterol
  • Increases the risk of atherosclerosis, or built-up fat and cholesterol in the arteries 
  • Activates apoptosis, or programmed cell death
  • Causes inflammation

High LDL and low HDL cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration advises removing trans fats and PHOs from your diet to protect against heart disease, including heart attack.

For the most part, food manufacturers and restaurants have eliminated trans fats due to their harmful effects. Still, you may find PHOs in foods like fried and battered foods, shortening and margarine, pastries (e.g., cakes, pies, and cookies), and dough.

You can help lower your risk of heart disease by reducing or eliminating your intake of those foods. Regularly talk to a healthcare provider about your cholesterol levels and how to build a heart-healthy diet.

Anything Fried or Battered

Many restaurants use that PHOs to make foods, such as: 

  • French fries
  • Fried chicken 
  • Potato wedges
  • Fried fish
  • Other fried snacks

Not frying food in PHOs can significantly reduce the amount of trans fat in on-the-go foods. Still, some restaurants have products that have trans fat listed on their nutrition labels. For example, a serving of large Cajun fries from Popeyes has two grams of trans fat.

Nutritional information might be challenging to find for small and local restaurants. One way to locate trans fat content is to look at the establishment’s website to see what oil they use. Then, you can ask when you get to the restaurant if that content is not listed.

Whether the restaurant uses PHOs, it’s generally better for your heart to stay clear of fried foods.

Pie and Piecrust

Many major restaurant chains have removed PHOs from their apple pies. Still, some baked products may contain trans fat. You may find trans fat in a pie or pie crust variety at your local grocery store. 

Always check the label if you are in doubt. Manufacturers must list the trans fat content of foods.

Margarine Sticks

Previously, manufacturers marketed margarine as a healthier alternative to butter. Margarine is made from vegetable oil instead of dairy or animal products. 

For margarine to maintain its solid form, many types, mainly stick varieties, depend on PHOs high in trans or saturated fat. Steer clear of regular sticks. Instead, opt for whipped, reduced-fat, or fat-free soft spreads.


Companies can round down and put “zero grams” on their nutrition labels if their product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Those trace amounts can add to unhealthy amounts if you bake or eat baked goods.

Cake Mixes and Frostings

You could see the telltale word “shortening” on many ingredient lists, even if you find a cake or muffin mix labeled trans-fat-free. That could mean trace amounts of trans fats, which can add up over multiple servings.

Consider how you are going to top your creation. Different frostings have varying amounts of trans fat, even from the same brand. Check the nutrition labels, which apply to brownie and cupcake mixes.

Pancakes and Waffles

Some pancake and waffle mixes may contain PHOs. Many popular brands have none, but checking the nutrition label does not hurt. You may still spot some PHO high on the ingredients list.

Fried Chicken

Manufacturers may hide trans fat in frozen fried chicken in many products, such as frozen meals marketed to children.

Many restaurants may use trans-fat-containing oils to fry chicken. Those oils are inexpensive options that improve the dish’s taste and texture. It’s a good idea to check websites or ask what type of oil a restaurant fries their chicken in before you eat it.

Ice Cream

Specific ice cream flavors can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. The telltale listing of PHOs will be missing if you read the ingredients list.

There are naturally occurring trans fats in fat-containing dairy products. Several animal products from ruminant animals like cows and sheep contain trans fat. You may find those naturally occurring trans fats in meat products.

Those trans fats affect your body similarly to the manufactured kind, even though they occur naturally. Limiting those foods in your diet as much as possible may help.

Non-Dairy Creamers

Non-dairy creamers may be a regular part of your morning if you are a coffee lover. Over time, those creamers can add trans fat to your diet.

The ingredients listed on some creamers may list zero grams of trans fat per serving. Yet, PHOs may be the second or third ingredient listed, meaning they’re one of the top ingredients. Those oils can add up if you drink multiple servings of coffee daily.

Some manufacturers have replaced PHOs with hydrogenated oils that do not contain trans fat. Still, those oils increase the risk of heart disease. Try avoiding those oils as much as possible.

Microwave Popcorn

Popcorn is a healthy snack that provides a serving of whole grains. Still, there’s no telling what you add when you pour on the gooey toppings. Many microwave popcorns may contain some amounts of trans fat.

Even organic brands of popcorn may have some trans fat. You can check the nutrition facts label to ensure your popcorn has the optimal amount of trans fat per serving, according to your dietary needs.

Ground Beef

Just as with dairy products, beef can contain natural trans fat. Some chains have removed PHOs from their fried foods. 

Still, some burgers served at restaurants contain significant levels of trans fat. You will find trans fat in many frozen burgers, beef sausages, hot dogs, and ground beef.

Eating a lot of saturated-fat-containing animal products ups your risk for several chronic diseases. Try adding some plant-based meals throughout the week as much as possible.

Cookies and Cakes

Some cookie varieties may have less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Though some still contain PHOs. Beware of store-bought frozen desserts, some of which contain trans fats.

Biscuits and Sweet Rolls

Many fast food chains offer biscuits with zero grams of trans fat per serving. Several donut and cinnamon roll retailers have phased out all trans fat. Still, others offer treats with up to one gram each.

Be sure to check the grocery store types, too. Some frozen biscuits and sweet rolls may include some trans fat. Other varieties do not have trans fat on the label but list PHO in the ingredients.

Breakfast Sandwiches

Some breakfast sandwiches served on biscuits at restaurants can have up to six grams of trans fat. At the grocery store, frozen sandwiches may include small amounts of trans fat per serving.

Frozen or Creamy Beverages

Trans fat can naturally occur in dairy products, so you may want to look closely at dairy deserts. Although it may seem counterintuitive, those treats might have the most trans fat on the menu.

Many restaurants’ shakes and creamy drinks have 0.5 grams or less. Still, some can contain up to nine grams of trans fat. Mix-ins, such as cookies or cookie dough, add additional trans fat.

Meat Sticks

You pack more than just protein when you snap a processed meat snack. Some of those snacks may contain trans fat since it occurs naturally in beef.

Instead of processed meat sticks, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises eating plant-based snacks like fresh fruit or veggies. You can get protein from heart-healthy fish, poultry, lentils, soybeans, and nuts.


Some crackers may not list any trans fat on their nutrition labels. Still, some varieties contain partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil in their nutrition labels. Even that small amount will add up if you eat more than a few.

To be sure you are buying crackers that contain no trans fat, read the ingredients before even looking at the nutrition label. Choose snacks that avoid PHOs like Stacy’s Pita Chips or Annie’s Bunnies.

Frozen Dinners

Frozen foods are likely to contain trans fat not just to make the foods more stable but to give them a fatty feel in your mouth. Not all frozen foods are problematic, though. For example, frozen fish and frozen vegetables can make wonderfully nutritious meals.

That said, prepackaged frozen and microwave meals can contain unhealthy trans fat. As with other foods, make sure to check the nutrition label.

Canned Chili

Several varieties of frozen beef chili contain about 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Turkey chili may be a healthier alternative to beef chili. Turkey chili often, but not always, has fewer calories and less saturated fat than beef chili.

One of the best ways to avoid trans fats is to check the nutrition labels on what you pick up from the grocery store. Read the ingredient list to see if a product contains PHOs, which contain trans fats. Check the restaurant website or ask what oil they use for frying food if you plan to eat out.