They’re the bad guys. The artery-clogging fats that increase your risk of heart disease. And they’re hiding in your food, even grub you thought was healthy and good for you. Here’s how to find them.
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I was naive enough to think that once the verdict on trans-fats had been so clearly spelled out, they would surely be eliminated from the ingredients list of manufactured food items. But I could not have been more mistaken. Much to my surprise, leave alone elimination-- even the so-called healthy foods have trans-fats hiding in them.

Take, for instance, the case of peanut butter. I have always recommended peanut butter for children, as it is a source of fat that is from a nut and is tasty too. When making this recommendation, I tried looking for a brand that did not contain trans-fats and I must confess that it was almost impossible to find. I faced a similar challenge when recommending microwave popcorn and ready-to-eat baked food items.

Although, I make it a point to read food labels, it is my love for coffee that got me to skimp on this usual practice. I purchased a particular brand of 3-in-1 instant coffee mix from the US recently and later noticed that it contained ‘hydrogenated palm kernel oil’. Quite evidently, trans-fats make their way even into foods where you’re least expecting them.

So, where are you likely to encounter these trans-fats?

If laccha paratha or fried patties are amongst your favourite foods when eating out, you are sure to imbibe a reasonable dose of this not-so-healthy kind of fat. Trans-fats are essentially vegetable oils that are solidified by a chemical process called hydrogenation. Being a cheap substitute for butter and ghee, these fats lend a layered, flaky or crumbly texture to the dough. This is why food items such as cookies, cakes, cake-mixes, etc. are likely to contain trans-fats. The crumbly shortcrust in your cheesecake is another likely place for the trans-fats to hide. Jalebi and samosas are quite certainly fried in this fat, as there is no regulation as of now, to check this menace.

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Just like the layered and crumbly foods, many creamy products owe their creaminess to this kind of fat. So it’s important to be wary of artificial creamers, ice-cream, and even icing mix that is pre-packaged.

Trans-fats also add a fair bit of crunchiness to food, which is why microwave popcorn and many snacks that are partially processed or ready-to- eat are likely to contain this fat. Do check out packets of chips and namkeens for the same reason.

With trans-fats present copiously in most of the foods that we commonly consume, how do we go about avoiding this very unhealthy fat?

Here are three ways in which you can exercise more caution:

Be aware of them: Trans-fats are often veiled within different names. You are likely to have come across ingredients such as ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ on many food labels but may have assumed them to be innocuous. Many of the oils, particularly soy and palm oils undergo hydrogenation and are added to foods. ‘Vegetable shortening’ or ‘vanaspati’ are other variants of the same thing.

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Zero does not always mean nil: Food companies can round off values of anything below 0.5g to the figure of 0g. Therefore, it may not be enough to see the value of zero and be convinced that the product is trans-fat free.

Look at the ingredients list. Food products that claims to contain ‘0 (g) trans fat’ should still be scrutinized on the basis of the listed ingredients. It is here that the presence of trans-fats may actually show up. While on the surface, 0.45g will pass off as 0g trans-fat, you’ll see the same mentioned somewhere among the ingredients through the use of inscrutable nomenclature. (Let’s list them out in a box)

When trying to measure the dangers of consuming trans fats, it is crucial to remember that it is the numbers that eventually add up. This means that if you are in the habit of consuming many products or many servings of foods that contain these fats (even if the label reads ‘0g/serving’), it is likely that you are getting more than the amount that is considered safe. The safe limit is restricted to no more than 2g trans fats per day.

Why are they in your food?

If you haven’t guessed already, trans fats are all about serving the manufacturer’s purpose. They extend the shelf life of packaged products and keep the food feeling-fresh for a longer period of time.

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So, until the time when trans fats are phased out completely, it is important for you to ensure that you don’t consume too much of them. Essentially, this means that you should eat foods that are as close to their natural states as possible. Avoid fried and packaged foods as far as possible, and eat fresh, home cooked meals, and try and make sauces and spreads at home.

This would mean that if you do not find a brand of peanut butter without the harmful fat added to it, you should consider preparing it at home by grinding the peanuts with a healthy oil that is not hydrogenated. All it takes is a little bit of time and effort to steer clear of trans fats and stay healthy.

Neelanjana Singh is President of the Indian Dietetics Association, Delhi Chapter

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