Your Nutritional Questions Answered: Are trans fats unhealthier than saturated fats?

Beth Dumbauld

Are trans fats unhealthier than saturated fats?

Is margarine or butter healthier? Are foods that contain trans fats less healthy to eat than foods that contain saturated fats? That’s a question you’ll cover in your online nutrition 101 class. Almost everybody has to take a nutrition class these days, so you might as well get a head start!

Trans fats are artificial fats that are created through a chemical process called hydrogenation. They were invented to replace saturated fats, which are more natural and costly. Shortly after trans fats were introduced, they started to find their way into all kinds of commercial food products.

Studies then started to determine that trans fats are unhealthy. For example, one study of 80,000 women conducted by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition determined that they increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Other studies have found that they increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

In 2005, the U.S. government released a new set of dietary guidelines that advised people to, “Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible.” So while saturated fats remain a limited part of a nutritious diet, trans fats do not, making butter healthier than margarine.

How Can You Avoid Trans Fats?

As of January 1, 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required that trans fats be listed on product labels. So read those food ingredient labels carefully. And be aware, it’s a big problem. According to the FDA, about 40% of all the foods you find in supermarkets contain it.

But avoiding those unhealthy fats gets even trickier. According to, this is some information you should know . . .

  • Don't eat any product that lists "partially hydrogenated" ingredients or "shortening" on list of ingredients. Note: Fully hydrogenated oils do not contain trans fat. However, if the word "hydrogenated" is used without the word "partially," that product may contain partially hydrogenated oil. Not all labeling is accurate and the word "partially" may have been wrongfully omitted on some products. Interesting! 
  • If the label says “zero trans fats,” don't believe it. If the words "partially hydrogenated" or "shortening" are in the ingredients list, it still DOES contain trans fat.
  • Be especially wary of store-bought cookies (95% of them contain trans fat, according to the FDA), frozen breakfast foods (80%), salty snacks and chips (75%), cake mixes (70%), and boxed cereals (nearly 50%).
  • Watch what you eat in fast food restaurants. You might not have seen the movie Super Size Me, but you might want to. At fast food outlets, one portion of French fries can contain as much as 8 grams of trans fat. A baked apple pie can contain 4.5 grams, and a chicken pot pie, 14 grams.
  • If you are eating in a regular restaurant, ask if it cooks with partially hydrogenated oils, which are loaded with trans fat. Remember, even vegetable oil can fall into that category.

To learn more . . .   

Sign up for StraighterLine’s online nutrition class or online medical terminology class and get guaranteed transfer credit to one of our partner colleges.

Steven Pope has an MBA from Western Governors University and Bachelors of Science in communication from Weber State University. He has a background as a television reporter in Idaho and Wisconsin, and most recently as an enrollment counselor at WGU.

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