What are trans fats? Are they in vegan foods? Are they really that bad?

Trans fat label photo by Samuel Kessler / Getty Images

Before we answer the question about whether or not there are trans fats in vegetarian and vegan foods, let's take a step back and look at what, exactly, we mean when we say "trans fats". What exactly are trans fats? 

What are trans fats?

Definition: Trans fats, also called trans fatty acids, occur naturally in some foods, such as meat and dairy products. 

But when most people ask about trans fats, they are not asking about these naturally occurring trans fats, and, the trans fats you hear so much about in the media are also not referencing the naturally occurring trans fats found in some meat and dairy products.

More thank likely, if you came here wondering about trans fats, what you're really wondering about is artificial trans fats. 

Artificial trans fats are created through the process of hydrogenation of plant-based oils and animal fats when these liquid fats are turned into soft solids such as shortening or margarine. Artificial trans fats are also called partially hydrogenated oils.

Are trans fats really that bad for you?

There is some debate amongst health experts about whether naturally occurring trans fats pose a health risk. A small amount is probably ok, but most people consume more than just a small amount of meat and dairy products.

But there is absolutely no denying that artificial trans fats are very unhealthy and offer no health benefit whatsoever. The ideal amount of artificial trans fats in your diet should be zero, and, barring that, as few as possible. 

The laundry list of negative side effects of trans fats and hydrogenated oils is a mile long, and, chances are they may contribute to even more unknown health problems.

 Heart disease, clogged arteries, and high cholesterol are the main health risks, but some studies suggest diabetes and some types of cancer may be triggered by trans fats as well.

Who should avoid artificial trans fats?

Everybody, really. Unlike naturally occurring fats, such as in avocados and olive oils, artificial trans fats are not a necessary nutrient in our diets.

If you have high cholesterol or a history of high cholesterol in your family, its best to skip foods containing trans fats completely. Also, if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, be aware that your breast milk will carry trans fat to your child, so you may want to reduce your intake.

Are there trans fats in vegetarian and vegan foods?

There are no naturally occurring trans fats in vegan foods. Vegetarians and vegans still need to be concerned about trans fats, however, since our modern food production system produces and adds them to many non-meat based foods, such as margarine and fried and baked foods

Though a healthy vegan is likely eating far fewer trans fats, a vegan who eats lots of fried and processed foods not prepared at home might be surprised to find out that they may be consuming quite a bit of trans fat. Some vegan margarines (though not all), many restaurant meals, and even popular vegan products such as vegan cream cheese do contain partially hydrogenated oils. Read the label if this is something you want to avoid.

Many products make it easy by clearly stating that they are trans fat free, and some products, such as Tofutti brand vegan cream cheese offer two versions of their product: one with partially hydrogenated oils (which is incredibly delicious) and one without (which is not too bad, in my opinion, but not as yummy as the version with!). 

Also of note: The amount of naturally occurring trans fats in meat and dairy is very, very small, particularly in comparison to a number of artificial trans fats in processed foods. It would be a fallacy for vegetarians and vegans to think that because they aren't eating meat and dairy they can make up for it with a little artificial trans fats, as there is really no comparison.

That being said, there's a reason why trans fats are added to so many foods: they are, indeed, delicious. 

How can I avoid eating trans fats?

Fortunately, it's fairly easy to avoid eating artificial trans fats. Unless, that is if you're eating out. Many restaurants - both fast-food places and sit-down places use plenty of trans fats in just about everything. Avoiding fried foods and baked goods will help you steer clear, but it's no guarantee that you'll completely avoid eating trans fats. 

Here's what you can do to avoid trans fats and hydrogenated oils: 

  • Avoid fast food and commercial baked goods, as these often contain hidden trans fats.
  • Read food labels. The FDA requires packaged foods to disclose a number of trans fats in food products. Know how much is too much for you. Look out for the words "shortening", "hydrogenated" and "partially hydrogenated oil", as these indicate hidden trans fats.

Also Known As: trans fatty acids, partially hydrogenated oils