Baby boomers growing up American style have in their memories a typical kitchen scene where a can of Crisco® shortening was kept next to the stove for frying chicken or making pie crusts. On the dinner table was a stick of oleo margarine for spreading on Pillsbury® dinner rolls. At the counter Mom was packing a school lunch box with saltine crackers and Jif® (or Skippy® or Peter Pan®) peanut butter spread between two slices of Wonder® Bread.
Post boomers on the other hand were likely to have traded in the lunch boxes for the McDonalds dining experience. Either way, what all of these so-called foods had in common is that they were loaded with trans fats.
Today the situation is a bit more insidious. You can find these culprits hiding in foods that pretend to be healthy. I have spotted them in several of the packaged frozen products called Lean Cuisine®, Healthy Choice®, and Weight Watchers® Smart Ones®. They are also concealed in many granola bars, whole grain crackers, and so-called nutrition bars. At least the chips and cookies aren’t being devious: they don’t pretend to be healthy.
What makes the current situation even more treacherous is that packaged foods can now claim that they contain zero trans fats as long as a single serving has less than 0.5 grams of the stuff. Some will even brag about it on the front of the package. And we all know how ridiculous a so-called single serving is for these snack items: I know of no one who eats only five chips. Now combine them with all the other processed foods out there vying for your palate and grocery money. In the course of a day the typical American diet probably includes several grams of these single-serving contents.
Children are at the greatest risk of eating dangerous amounts of trans fats. Most cookies, chips, candy bars, and peanut butters are still loaded with them: the kinds of things kids love. But even adult foods can contain them in some unlikely places: I’ve found them in cheese balls and salad dressings.
My biggest gripe, however, is with companies who falsely market their products as healthy. While they interpret the phrase “less than 0.5” as meaning “equivalent to zero,” I am left wondering whether there is anyone in the Food and Drug Administration who ever passed an arithmetic class. The bottom line, according to the Institute of Medicine: “There is no safe amount of trans fats in the diet.”
Perhaps you have heard that they are dangerous to your health, doing bad things to your heart and arteries. You may be less aware of the damaging effects they have on your brain. You can’t be blamed – heart disease is big business, and popular news likes to focus on the disease du jour. But my favorite organ to study – the brain – is just as bothered by these weird, artificially created fats as is the heart.
There is a growing body of literature relating changes in dietary fatty acid profiles to many aspects of mental health. One of the biggest surprises came in a study conducted in France and published in Neuroscience Research in April 2003. In this study rats were fed either a diet containing trans fats or a control diet for 21 months, or a diet that started with trans fats which was later corrected to a normal diet. Brain levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine (important for mood and focus) were lowered by 95% in the trans fat group compared to controls. Even scarier, the rats who were switched from a trans-containing diet to a trans-free diet remained unable to produce normal amounts of dopamine in the hippocampus (the part of the brain most responsible for consolidating memory).
This (along with trans fats’ ability to produce systemic inflammation which can reach the brain) is what I propose to be a large contributor in the rising incidences of depression and attention deficit disorder. Also implicated in these disorders of the mind is the fact that dietary trans fats interfere with the metabolism of essential fatty acids, and replace them in the cell membranes. When this occurs, various neurotransmitters responsible for mood, focus and memory have difficulty finding and identifying their receptors due to the distortion of the membranes on the receiving brain cells caused by the incorporation of trans fats.
I also propose that trans fats are the primary villain (with a few runner-ups) that has created our epidemics of obesity, metabolic disorder, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. The evidence comes from several studies, but one that especially caught my attention was published in Nutrition in Jul-Aug 2006. This study by researchers at Federal University of Sao Paulo in Brazil found that feeding trans fats to rats reduced insulin receptors by 44% compared to control rats. The trans-fed group also showed signs of altered appetite signals. When you combine these two mechanisms you’ve got a double whammy against weight control.
Since food manufacturers (a description I find somewhat oxymoronic) are able to lie about trans fat content, how do you know it’s there? Read beyond the nutrition label and inspect the ingredients list. For this you will have to turn the box on its side and read the small print. When you come to the ingredient called “partially hydrogenated [insert vegetable name here] oil” – bingo! For your brain and body’s sake, put the product back on the shelf.
And since many of these ingredients lists are lengthy enough to take up half your shopping time, you can avoid them faster by buying only those items labeled “organic” or “100% natural.” In order to use these designations, the food must be totally, 100%, no-fuzzy-math, free of trans fats.