Commercial baked goods like cakes and cookies and pies, popcorn, frozen pizzas, and fried items such as french fries, doughnuts and fried chicken usually contain trans fats. Photo Courtesy: iStock
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Hot fries dipped in ketchup and a burger gives us the much-needed dopamine boost. The same is true with vada pav, pakoras, wafers or even a sinful piece of chocolate cake. These foods we eat to satiate our taste buds and comfort the soul, however, can invite various avoidable diseases.
It's a known fact that eating fried and processed food is unhealthy and often responsible for weight gain and risk of cholesterol especially among the young. However, unfolding the primary reason behind it is necessary to be able to curb cravings for such foods high in trans fats.
Mid-day Online got in touch with nutrition experts who decode the hidden health risks of consuming trans fats present in a majority of food (especially outside food) we eat today.
It wouldn't be wrong to say that the majority of food items available in the market and restaurants are often unhealthy. While packaged and processed foods undoubtedly fall in the category of unhealthy food due to the excessive sugar, salt, artificial flavours and preservatives present in them, trans fats are yet another reason why nutritionists urge people against their consumption.
Dr Rohini Patil, a nutritionist says, "While trans fats can occur naturally in small amounts in certain animal products, they are primarily formed through an industrial process known as hydrogenation, where liquid vegetable oils are turned into solid fats."
During hydrogenation, hydrogen is added to the vegetable oil, creating a more solid and stable fat. This process extends the shelf life of products and provides a desirable texture.
Natural fats and oils are primarily distinguished from trans fats by their molecular makeup and origin. The fats and oils found in natural foods are usually a combination of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats.
Dr Manoj Kutteri, medical director and CEO, Atmantan Wellness Centre says, "By enhancing the stability and shelf life, oils are better suited for use in industrial food preparation."
Commercial baked goods like cakes and cookies and pies, popcorn, frozen pizzas, and fried items such as fries, doughnuts and fried chicken usually contain trans fats.
Common sources of trans fats
While industrial processes are one common source, many other factors can lead to the formation of trans fats. They are most commonly formed when oils are reused for cooking at high temperatures. Repeated heating breaks down the oil's structure leading to the creation of trans fats. High frying temperatures, particularly in deep fryers, cause oil to go through several chemical processes, such as oxidation and polymerisation. The chance of trans fat buildup increases when the same oil is used for frying regularly. Furthermore, exposure to air, moisture, and heat speeds up the deterioration of oil and encourages the production of dangerous substances like trans fats.
Many packaged and processed foods, as well as food served in eateries and by street food sellers, are popular sources of trans fats in India. In India, it is common for restaurants and food stands to deep fry food using partly hydrogenated oils, which results in the presence of trans fat in foods like pakoras, bhajis, and fried snacks.
Thus, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which has historically been widely utilised in the food sector for its stability and increased shelf life, is one major source of trans fats in the Indian diet. This kind of oil is also frequently used in professionally produced pastries, cakes, and biscuits as well as in snacks like samosas and fried namkeens.
Further, as cooking oils are utilised during the manufacturing of packaged foods, most ready-to-eat items like instant noodles and several other fast food varieties may also include trans fats.
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Health risks of consuming trans fats
Nutrition experts say trans fats can wreak havoc on human health. The most common health risk associated is cardiovascular issues. Trans fats cause a simultaneous decrease in high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or good cholesterol, and an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol. This unhealthy lipid profile raises the risk of coronary heart disease by the formation of plaque build-up in the arteries, which results in fatty deposits and blood vessel blockages.
Trans fats have also been connected to other metabolic syndromes, insulin resistance, and inflammation, all of which raise the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Higher trans-fat consumption may also trigger difficulties for those who already suffer from reproductive problems. Trans fats have been connected to systemic inflammation, which is connected to autoimmune diseases and inflammatory disorders among other health issues.
Furthermore, there is mounting evidence that links consuming trans-fat to detrimental impacts on mental and cognitive health as well.
Complete elimination of trans fats
According to health experts and organisations like the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization (WHO), the consumption of trans fat intake should be kept ideally at zero.
However, given the fast-paced life that involves heavy dependency on packaged, and ready-to-eat food, complete elimination of trans fat from the daily diet can be challenging. In such cases, both nutrition experts suggest keeping consumption at a minimum.
Besides, since trans fat can also be found in some natural foods, it can make eliminating the item from the diet more difficult. Nevertheless, one can greatly reduce the consumption of trans fats by making a conscious effort to choose healthier foods.
To further cut down the intake, you must also always check the nutrition label of packaged food for trans fat content.
Healthy alternatives to trans fats
Although food options might seem to be exhausting given the amount of unhealthy ingredients that go into making them, there are always healthy alternatives available.
Experts recommend switching to healthy cooking oils like olive, canola, or sunflower. They are high in unsaturated fats and do not go through the hydrogenation process that produces trans fats.
Opt for healthier fats present in olive oil, avocado oil, and nut oils. These oils can be used for regular cooking and as dressings in salads.
Include sources of omega-3 fatty acids like fatty fish, flaxseeds, and chia seeds in your diet. These sources of healthy fats are not just safe for consumption but also offer added health benefits.
Always opt for whole and nutrient-rich foods which have a multitude of health benefits instead of indulging in processed foods that are high in trans fats. Choose to munch on nuts and seeds as they make a healthy snack in place of processed baked goods because they contain important fatty acids.
Increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables in the diet. This will help provide the body with a range of essential vitamins and antioxidants in addition to fibre. Lean proteins like fish and poultry, as well as whole grains and legumes, are great options for well-balanced meals that support heart health.
The intake of trans fats can also be greatly reduced by switching to baked, grilled, or steamed foods instead of deep-fried ones. All in all, a diet high in whole, unprocessed foods that are low in harmful fats and high in nutrients can help people maintain a healthier lipid profile and lower their risk of metabolic and cardiovascular problems linked to trans fats.
Health experts suggest focusing on an overall healthy lifestyle. Besides eating healthy, exercising regularly and staying hydrated also help flush out toxins from the body.
In conclusion, while avoiding trans fats is ideal, occasional consumption can be managed by making informed choices, emphasising healthier fats, and maintaining a well-rounded lifestyle. Prioritising natural, unprocessed foods is key to promoting overall health and well-being.
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