The trans fat tribulation

Fat is one of the three essential macronutrients our body uses for energy and to maintain structure. But it’s important for you to consider which kind you consume, to keep health problems away.

The world we currently live in has more opportunities for us to add those dreaded pounds, than ever before. Add to that, a pandemic that’s propagating a Work from Home-based sedentary lifestyle and a barrage of deliverable commodities. People, especially urban dwellers, are finding a shrinkage in their comfort zones, so much so that even getting up to receive the food delivered to our doorsteps is becoming a task. During these lethargic times, one needs to wake up to the amount of fat that they consume, otherwise, a new wardrobe to Work from Office, will be the least of our worries.

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The trans fat tribulation 6
Natural trans fats are found in milk and meat products, and are formed naturally when bacteria inside the animals digest grass. Consumption of this kind of fat in moderation doesn’t have harmful effects.

What is fat?

Fat is a bad word in many fitness manuals, a blasphemous term that many self-help online trainers would have you believe is the root cause of all health problems. But what is fat?

Fat is the ester or fatty acids, or at times, refers to the triglycerides present in vegetable oils, fatty acids in animals, and along with protein and carbohydrates, forms one of three main macronutrients in our food. Common foods containing fat are milk and milk products, animal and fish meat, cooking oils and are a dense source of food energy.

They can be simply classified into saturated fats or solid fats from milk and milk products, unsaturated fats which are liquid at room temperature such as oils and trans fats which could be of plant or animal origin but which have been altered by a process called hydrogenation.

What is trans fat and what are the health problems associated with it?

Trans fats are a form of unsaturated fats which come in both natural and artificial forms. Natural trans fats occur in meat and dairy products, which form naturally when bacteria in animals digest grass, a moderate intake of which is not shown to have any harmful effects on human consumers. However, artificial trans fats or partially hydrogenated fats, which are added to or are used to chemically alter vegetable oils to increase shelf life, are quite hazardous to human health, and have been found to increase the risk of heart disease. A diet with a steady intake of trans fats showed an increase in low-density lipids or LDL (bad) cholesterol without any benefit to the high-density lipid (HDL) levels, whereas most other fats tend to have a similar effect on both LDL and HDL levels.

Studies also show a tendency in trans fat consumers of developing diabetes and in some cases, has also been known to cause insulin resistance in diabetics. Not to mention they have found cases where inflammation increased in people with excess weight, whenever trans fat was part of their diet. They are also known to damage the inner lining of blood vessels, called endothelium.

Trans fat in your food could take the form of:

  • Industrialised or mass-produced baked goods such as puffs, cakes, cookies and pies, among others.
  • Baker’s shortening.
  • Microwave popcorn.
  • Frozen pizza and other frozen, ready-to-fry products.
  • Refrigerated dough, such as biscuits and rolls.
  • Fried foods, including French fries, doughnuts and fried chicken.
  • Non-dairy coffee creamer.
  • All types of margarine.
  • Most processed foods.

Govt regulations in India governing trans fats and acceptable levels

In India, the body governing the food and drug industry, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), has capped the amount of trans fats in foods to 3 per cent for 2021 and 2 per cent in 2022, from the previous limit of 5 per cent, as per an amendment to the Act done on December 29, 2020. In the US, manufacturers can only name their products as trans fat-free if trans fats in their products is below 0.5gm of the total fats in the servings.

Stay away from trans fats

Being a baker, it is a very painful statement for me to make, as much of what bakers produce has a high amount of trans fats. But bearing in mind the general health of the consumer base as a whole, it makes more sense to adopt natural trans fats in baking rather than the current, artificial kind. The reason it is so widely found across the subcontinent and places where it is very hot, is mainly because hydrogenated products stay longer on shelves. But the price you pay as a consumer is much higher than what you would pay, if you opted for fresher food that spoils quicker.

There’s an easy way to understand this: A block of margarine would stay solid even through an Indian summer, which at present averages around 35-36 degree C, about the same as our normal human blood temperature. At this temperature, if the margarine is still solid, that means it will need a lot more heat to burn off that fat. Using this rather rudimentary logic, butter and other natural trans fats probably have a better chance of being shed through exercise than margarine or other artificial trans fats. So, remember, fat in itself isn’t bad, you just have to be careful about which kind you’re consuming.

Chef kunal arolkar
Chef Kunal Arolkar is a pastry chef, night driver, educationist, spirits, food and history buff, with a degree in hotel management, a penchant for controversy and a guilt-free lifestyle. He also owns and operates Foodybreaks, Goa’s first City & Guilds, UK, certified pastry school and bakery in Porvorim, north Goa.

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