In 2008, a California law went into effect banning the use of trans fats in restaurant cooking. In 2011, Walmart announced that it will start requiring all its suppliers to remove industrially produced trans fats from all processed foods—which according to the USDA contribute the highest percentage of trans fats to our diets—by 2015, That move alone, considering the number of food companies that want to sell their products in Walmart, could spell the end for the use of heart-killing, artery-clogging trans fats.
That's good news, especially for women. Past research has shown that women with heart disease are particularly susceptible to sudden cardiac death if they regularly consume trans fats in food. And a recent study just published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who ate the most trans fats had a 51 percent higher risk of ovarian cancer than women who ate the lowest amounts.
Given all the bad press trans fats received a few years ago, you might have thought they were as out-of-vogue as smoking lounges or lead paint. However, "they're definitely a big problem that people need to look out for," says Trevor Holly Cates, ND, a naturopathic physician with a practice in the Golden Door Spa at the Waldorf Astoria in Park City, Utah, and a board member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. She pegs the problem to our love of processed foods, which rely on partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (the number one source of trans fats) because they're cheap and last so long. The problem of processed foods become exacerbated by the fact that the Food and Drug Administration legally allows manufacturers to say that a serving contains zero trans fats if the actual amount of trans fat doesn't exceed 0.5 grams. That's a quarter of what the American Heart Association recommends most Americans eat per day. So a lot of people are eating trans fats without realizing it, or while thinking that they're eating trans-fat-free foods.
"Stay away from processed foods," Cates says. "The more we process foods and alter them from what's found in nature, the more problems we create." Cates also argues that, when it comes to home cooking, we shouldn't be replacing margarine and partially hydrogenated oils with regular vegetable oils, either. "Vegetable oils are made quickly and cheaply, and with the processing, it does change them so they're not as beneficial," she says. For instance, the heat and harsh chemicals used to extract oil from vegetables can destroy some of the vitamins and antioxidants that should make vegetable oils healthy. Plus, research has shown that overheating vegetable oils releases lung-damaging and potentially cancer-causing particulates into your kitchen.
Instead, Cates recommends you use healthier, less-processed cooking oils that can withstand high heats and have long shelf lives naturally. "A lot of oils are delicate and they oxidize quickly," she says, either when heated to high temperatures or after they go rancid. "It's important for people to know when that happens, because when an oil goes rancid, it can be more harmful than good." The oxidation process creates alterations at the cellular level that can promote cancerous cell growth, she says.
"The foods you eat should be feeding you and providing nutrients," she says. So if you want to get the most benefits from your cooking oils, rather than replace your harmful trans-fat oils with other potentially harmful vegetable oils, try one of these good fats instead:
#1: Grapeseed oil. Cates' favorite cooking oil is grapeseed oil, an oil that probably isn't familiar to most people. It's popular in France and, Cates says, is great for sautéing, stir-frying, and other high-temperature cooking methods. "With other oils, high temperatures cause them to change molecular structure and oxidize," she says. In addition, she says, grapeseed oil has been found to improve heart health: Animal studies have shown that rats fed grapeseed oil have lower levels of cholesterol than rats fed lard or soybean oil. Also, it's high in protein and fiber. It has a light flavor, so it works well when you need a neutral-tasting oil to cook with.