You might have heard of trans-fats. We all know they are nasty and will damage our health. But do you know where to find them? Products that are touted as healthy like margarine contain trans-fats. Every baked good you buy from the supermarket such as biscuits and premade cakes contain trans-fats.
Trans-fats are surprisingly ubiquitous and for the sake of your health you need to understand how they are made and how to avoid them. This article is a brief but comprehensive overview of trans-fats and the way that they are made – through a very nasty process called hydrogenation.
If trans fats are so bad, why are they in our food supply?
Trans-fats were developed in response to an industry need for a non-animal or saturated fat that would remain hard at room temperature. You might recall that naturally occurring, saturated fats from things like animals and coconuts contain no double bonds in their fatty acid chains – this is what classifies them as “saturated.” The lack of double bonds means that these fats pack together easily and are solid at room temperature, then become liquid when heated. Polyunsaturated fats on the other hand contain multiple double bonds, which means that they cannot pack together and are always liquid, even at room temperature. This would be no good for a cake or biscuit. After baking it would simple become a runny mess. The right fat is needed to hold these things together, which is why our grandparents used to cook with plenty of butter and animal fats!
Throughout the 1950s-60s America did a very good job of convincing the world that saturated fat was bad for us. By the end of the 1970s everyone was getting aboard the low-fat train and searching for ways to replace saturated fat from animals in particular. I cover this in great detail in this article. In response to this craze food manufacturers sought a way to produce the same food such as cakes and biscuits but by using non-saturated fats. This was a challenge, but luckily scientists had been hard at work in the early 20th Century figuring out how to manipulate fat chemistry to create a useful product. This process was called hydrogenation and today we are picking up the pieces of a misguided experiment on ourselves.
The process of hydrogenation
Hydrogenation involves transforming the type of double bond between two carbon atoms in a polyunsaturated fatty acid chain to make a zig-zag molecule that allows the adjacent fatty acids to lie next to it. Prior to hydrogenation pairs of hydrogen atoms occur together on the fatty acid chain causing the fat to bend and for electrons to cluster at the site of the double bond. This is referred to as a cis-formation. Cis-formations are naturally occurring and it is this arrangement of atoms that allows our cells to incorporate these fats to perform their functions.
Hydrogenation restructures the fatty acid chain so that one hydrogen atom is moved to the other side of the chain so the molecule straightens. This new formation is called a trans-formation. This means that the fatty acids will pack together and therefore become a solid at room temperature.
Hydrogenated fats are produced with a nickel catalyst. The cis-formation of naturally occurring fatty acids is restructured to form a trans-formation, which means a hydrogen atom is moved to the other side of the fatty acid to allow it to pack together and be solid at room temperature.
This is how non-animal, solid fat products such as margarine are produced. When we consume fats with the trans-formation our cells cannot tell the difference and they are actively incorporated into our cells just like other fatty acids. This wreaks havoc with our cell metabolism, because trans-fats prevent our cells from performing certain critical functions that can only occur when electrons are in very specific arrangements. Sally Fallon outlines these effects ranging from cancer to immune dysfunction, birth defects and mental health issues. Hydrogenated fats should be actively avoided for cellular health.
Manipulating of the chemical structure of fat, sounds like genetic modification to me. Usually only part of a hydrogenated oil is comprised of trans-fats, which is why the ingredients often say partially hydrogenated oil, which allows manufacturers to get away with a bit more.
The fear of animal fats lead us to search for seed and vegetable alternatives that could be used at room temperature.
The hydrogenation process was picked up by Proctor and Gamble, which patented it. They initially used it to make soap, but soon discovered they could make a butter alternative out of vegetable oils, it was called Crisco. In decades afterwards many other big food manufacturers followed suit and also developed hard polyunsaturated fats by using hydrogenation. It was a great way to use up the waste product that was made from other seed manufacturing processes and as the fear of saturated fat grew and people sought polyunsaturated alternatives, the demand for these fats increased. In response to big marketing campaigns by various food manufacturers and lobby groups, the fear of saturated fat became so great that most products such as biscuits, cakes and had their recipes changed to replace the saturated fat ingredients with hydrogenated oils.
It was not until 1929, that the trans-fats present in hydrogenated oils were discovered. A study on rats in 1933, showed that these fats were not necessarily fit for human consumption; however, this was an inconvenient finding for industry and so in 1944 they responded by funding a study that would ensure results in favour of margarine. (1)
Due to the huge industry pressure and interest in generating fear of saturated fat and not promoting the dangers of trans-fats, there as one lone researcher who was forced to explore the dangers of trans-fats alone. As Nina Teicholz writes in The Big Fat Surprise, Fred Kummerow a biochemist published over seventy papers on the damage caused by trans-fats, many of which fell on deaf ears.
Over the years Kummerow and others’ research showed these dangers of trans-fats:
– Trans fats accumulated in humans fat tissue and replaced our normal essential fatty acids in the body, which are the building blocks of each of our cells. The trans-fatty acids acted like rogue agents causing disruption in the body;
– These unnatural fatty acids can negatively affected calcification of the cell membranes and caused elevated blood calcium levels associated with heart disease;
– Rather than just eliminating trans-fats the body actually incorporates them into your cells as though they were in their old cis structure. This means that your cells also become partially hydrogenated! Once incorporated into your cells they seriously upset your cell metabolism because certain chemical reactions only take place when electrons in the cell membranes sit in certain patterns.
– Hydrogenating oil removes four naturally occurring fatty acids from oil and replaces it with fifty unnatural ones! This has the potential to wreak havoc on our bodies because trans-fats prevent our cells from performing certain critical functions that can only occur when electrons are in very specific arrangements.
– Trans fats actively raise LDL (bad cholesterol) and lower HDL (good cholesterol).
Kummerow’s (and a few other brave scientists’) work paid off. By the late 1990s – early 2000s, people were growing wary of trans-fats and things were about to change. We had a new fat to fear, this time it was trans-fats. Although industry tried very hard to fight back against the emerging research against trans-fats; however, eventually the truth came out. In 2003, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which mandates food labelling laws ruled that foods containing trans-fats would need to be labelled by 2006. According to Nina Teicholz by this time over forty-two thousand products in America contained trans-fats and would need to contain a warning. So companies got to work reformulating their recipes again.
The result over the last decade has been a return to vegetable oils.
Instead of just forgetting the nonsense peddled by industry and eating what humans have always eaten – good quality saturated fats, we continue to avoid what nature provides and choose the yellowy manufactured polyunsaturated oils.