Trans fats – the good*, the bad, and the ugly

*There actually is no good. Just bad and ugly. Anyways…

**Note, if you don’t want to read a science-y post, move along, but if you’re down with a little learning, than read on, my friends! 

A while ago after I posted this about trans-fats hiding in sneaky places like seasonings, a friend of mine asked me to write a post about trans-fats in general. What are they, anyway? Why are they so bad? Is that what margarine is made of?

So, here you go Todd, here’s the deal:

To start off, lets just do a brief review of what exactly trans-fats are. No, I’m not going to give you a super-specific chemistry lesson (sorry to my 10th grade Chemistry teacher, Ms. Fink — Chemistry is cool, but not that cool). First off, the difference between saturated fats and unsaturated fats is the way that the carbon atoms are bonded to each other. Fat molecules with all double bonds between carbon atoms = unsaturated fat, and those with all single bonds (which allows for the maximum “saturation” by hydrogen atoms) = saturated fat.

Hydrogenation is the process of turning the double carbon bonds into single bonds, allowing the saturation mentioned above (this turns unsaturated fats into saturated fats). Partial Hydrogenation, on the other hand, keeps some of the carbon bonds as double, and changes some to single bonds. This process creates a fat that will be solid at room temperature, but melts (and spreads*) easily.

*The allure of Margarine: the easy spread.

(thats what she said)

Sorry. Inappropriate. Moving on.

Back in the day, margarines and shortening such as Crisco were made using this chemical process of partial-hydrogenation. The goal was to provide consumers with a buttery like substance that could be taken out of the refrigerator and spread immediately and easily on to other foods. This was also a way to overcome a shortage of butter fat waaaaay back in the day, and to create buttery spreads using things like soybean oil and other plentiful vegetable oils.

So how does partial hydrogenation turn a normal unsaturated fat into a trans-fat? 

The process of partial hydrogenation, as stated above, turns some of those double carbon bonds into single bonds. At these sites, this process also moves the hydrogen atoms so that they are on opposite sides of the carbon atom, instead of being on the same said. THIS is a trans-fat (an unsaturated fat in the trans-formation rather than the cis-formation).

What do these types of fats do to us?

If you read my other posts (here and here) about fats, you’ll know that I have a special affinity for them, unsaturated and even saturated, to some extent.  However, trans-fats are a different story. This type of fat has been proven to not only lower your HDL (the very important type of cholesterol), but will also raise your LDL (the less desirable of the two). As  mentioned in those other posts, heart health is not so much affected by total cholesterol, as once thought, but much more by the ratio of HDL:LDL in your blood. With trans-fats actively reducing this ratio, it only spells bad-news-bears for your heart health. Long story short: trans-fats contribute significantly to heart disease.

WHY do food manufacturers use partially-hydrogenated oils? 

This one’s easy! Partially-hydrogenated oils are super-cool to a select few in Big Food because they do a few things really well: increase shelf life, decrease the need for refrigeration, and are also much cheaper to use than other types of oils and fats.

Wait, Big Food makes decisions based on money, not health?  That’s a topic for a MUCH bigger post. We’ll leave that one alone for today.

Partially hydrogenated oils are thankfully not used in margarines anymore, and Crisco has changed their formula so that they meet the FDA guidelines for trans-fats (which are not perfect, by any means).  However, they are still used a lot in many of the processed foods that are so heavily consumed in the US, and in many fast-food restaurants as well. Scrutiny over the past several years has drastically cut the use of trans-fats in restaurants, however the use of partially-hydrogenated oils in processed foods is thriving, and I honestly can’t see that changing drastically any time soon.  I dare you to take a walk down any of the inner aisles of your local chain grocery store, and you’ll see what I mean. Partially Hydrogenated _____ Oil (vegetable, soybean, etc.) appears on the label of countless types of processed foods.

The #1 thing that is very important to remember about trans-fats is that the label can say “Zero grams of trans-fats!” as long as it has less than .5g per serving. CHECK YOUR INGREDIENT LIST. If partially hydrogenated oils are present, there are in fact trans-fats present. There’s just a nice little loophole in the FDA guidelines for them to hide)

Are ALL trans-fats evil?

Well technically, no. There are some naturally occurring forms of trans-fats, however these natural forms have a combination of cis-and trans-formations, which means that they are not quite as detrimental as the chemically formulated trans-fats. Avoiding all trans fats may not be possible due to these naturally occurring animal sources, however chemically processed forms should be avoided when at all possible.

So there you go with a brief overview on the trans-fats. There are certainly a lot of other details I could throw in, but I know that this is already getting slightly long and I can’t bore all of my readers to death on a lovely Wednesday like today.

I don’t know about you guys but I really do find this stuff fascinating, and I really love to see the advances that the food industry has made over the last several years. Yes, trans-fats are still used an awful lot, but there is a huge improvement when compared to the usage of them 20 years ago. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong and there will be an even more drastic decrease in the use of trans fats over the next several years.

Until then (and forever), shop fresh, shop local, and leave the chemically-formed robot foods to feed those who survive the Apocolypse.

Freshness (?).. Hostess… Kids (with diabetes and heart disease)… They go together!

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5 thoughts on “Trans fats – the good*, the bad, and the ugly

  1. I absolutely love it when you write these sciencey posts, I always learn so much! I knew trans fats were bad, but holy crap some of those facts are just plain creepy!
    “shop fresh, shop local, and leave the chemically-formed robot foods to feed those who survive the Apocolypse.” Hahaha best description ever! 😀

  2. science-y is where it’s at!

    processed foods are not…

    thanks for the reminder in easy to read non textbook terms! this is how people need to learn about stuff like this. you rock.

  3. Great post, read it on an iPad while at my standing desk, healthy right? Now all my questions are answered, thanks. Now off to eat a sick of pasture butter. I heard organic butter from only pastured cows is even a little better then regular organic butter.

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