We've just come off several years of hearing that trans fat is bad for us -- worse than lard, worse than butter, worse than eating pork rinds and bacon grease.
And now they're telling us there's good trans fat?
That bites, you say.
Indeed, trans fat has become the whipping post of the entire health community, because it raises the bad (LDL) cholesterol -- just as too much saturated fat does -- but it has a double-whammy effect of lowering the good cholesterol (the HDL stuff) too.
There was finally one point on which virtually every health and medical professional could agree: Let's get the trans fat out of our food!
The government heard the evidence loud and clear, and kind of took steps in that direction.
Rather than ban trans fat altogether, the government required manufacturers to list the trans fat content on their nutritional labels as of Jan. 1, 2006. Fully aware that having trans fat on the nutrition panel would be the equivalent of box office poison for any food, manufacturers scrambled to reformulate their products so that their labels could say "0 grams of trans fat."
That doesn't mean the product has no trans fat, though, because there's a tiny loophole in the regulations. The food can still have added trans fat, but if it amounts to less than half a gram per serving, the label can round it down and say "0 grams trans fat." Of course, eat a few servings of the stuff, which Americans tend to do, and you've potentially eaten a couple of grams of trans.
The trans fat you've heard about is a manufactured or industrial trans fat. It starts out as liquid vegetable oil, which then gets bombarded with hydrogen atoms to make it a bit more firm at room temperature.
In this form, it's called "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil," and too much of it is what has bad effects on our cholesterol levels.
Interestingly, if the vegetable oil is "fully hydrogenated," then it's not "trans" anymore, and it just becomes another saturated fat.
Manufactured trans fat is found mostly in baked goods like pastries, cookies, cake, as well as those ever-lovin' french fries and other deep-fried foods like fried chicken. It's also in some brands of vegetable shortening, although it's now being removed from most of them.
As a baking ingredient, this partially hydrogenated stuff replaced butter decades ago. Manufacturers liked it because it had less saturated fat and no cholesterol, so it was thought to be healthier. Besides, it was a heck of a lot cheaper than butter, so manufacturers figured it was a win-win.
Now, because of evolving scientific evidence, they've done an 180-degree turn. And today they can't get trans fat out of the food supply fast enough.
In addition to the manufactured type of trans fat, natural trans fats can also be present, mostly in meat and dairy foods. But it's not quite the same as the partially hydrogenated stuff. Natural trans fats might even be good for you.
One such natural trans fat is called conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA. It's present mostly in meat and dairy foods, such as milk, yogurt and cheese.