What is Trans Fat, and Will Costa Rica Ban It?

March 9, 2007

With the recent ban of trans fat in all New York restaurants, would you publish an informative article on trans fat – how it is produced, and what it means to human health? (In layman’s terms, please.)

Klaus W. Roloff

Guadalupe de Alajuela

Well, we’ll do our best. The short answer is that trans fat is bad news, but the long answer is pretty interesting, too.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are three kinds of fats: saturated, unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), and trans fat.

Saturated fat is found mostly in foods of animal origin and got its name because its molecules contain more hydrogen atoms than other fats, making it “saturated” with hydrogen, according to the FDA.Unsaturated fat is found mostly in foods of plant origin and some seafood, and is missing one or two pairs of hydrogen atoms.

Trans fat, on the other hand, is found naturally only in certain animal products.

Most of the time, it’s manufactured. It’s produced when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil. This process, known as hydrogenation, adds hydrogen atoms to the unsaturated fat contained in the oil, which produces a straighter molecular structure that can be packed together more tightly.

The upshot: hydrogenated oils are solid at room temperature, increasing the food’s shelf life and flavor stability. Cakes, cookies and crackers, snack foods, margarine and shortening often contain trans fat.

What does this mean for your body? In a nutshell, unsaturated fats are good for you when consumed in moderation. Saturated fat is not – nor is trans fat, which is the worst of all, according to nutritionist Victor Guevara, of Costa Rica’s Public Health Ministry. He told The Tico Times that because trans fats are generally solid except when subjected to high heat during cooking, they solidify again inside the body and can clog arteries, increasing the risk of heart attacks.

These fats “have been closely linked to cardiovascular diseases, which are one of the primary causes of death in this country,” Guevara said.

These risks prompted the FDA to require that all food manufacturers list trans fat on a separate line on their nutrition labels in the United States as of Jan. 1, 2006. (Saturated fat content has been required on labels since 1993, according to www.cfsan.fda.gov.)

What’s more, the government of New York City has now banned trans fat from all restaurants. According to Guevara, no such ban is in Costa Rica’s immediate future, but the ministry has seen manufacturers here make significant voluntary reductions in trans-fat use as more information comes out about its harmful effects.

“From what the ministry has seen, many national industries…are eliminating them from the market, precisely because of the prohibitions in other countries,” he told The Tico Times.

The ministry and other institutions, such as the University of Costa Rica (UCR) NutritionSchool, are working to ensure even more manufacturers and other Costa Ricans get the message. For years, the ministry has urged Ticos to reduce their reliance on lard and hydrogenated palm oil as cooking fat and switch to vegetable oil instead, Guevara said.

As for identifying quantities of saturated, unsaturated and trans fat on food labels, a proposal is in the works here to add that to the current requirement, which demands only that labels list the total fat content, according to Alejandra Chaverri, another Health Ministry nutritionist who works with the Technical Unit of Registries and Controls. However, under Costa Rica law, manufacturers don’t need to list any nutritional information unless they make nutritional claims, such as “low in saturated fat” or “high in protein.”

The same inter-institutional committee that’s considering the new fat requirement is also considering making nutrition information mandatory for all product packages in Costa Rica, Chaverri said.

 

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