Monday, June 11, 2012

Not even in moderation: Trans Fat

Recently a friend was talking about how she wanted to feed her child healthier snacks.  Her typical snack includes Oreos and other boxed crackers and cookies.  She knows that these things are not healthy but she made the statement "there is nothing wrong with it in moderation."  Being the compassionate friend that I am *eh-hem*, I blurted out unceremoniously "YES THERE IS!"  You hear the term "everything in moderation" all the time.  Weight Watchers has made an empire and has helped millions lose weight (or not lose weight) with that very mantra.  However, I have to argue that there are some things that should never be consumed, not even in moderation.  That statement has prompted me to do a mini research project on things I believe are not ok, not even in moderation.  The first ingredient that should never be consumed is trans fat which most often comes in the form of partially hydrogenated oils.

Partially hydrogenated oils are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.  In 1890 the chemistry of hydrogenation was born.  At first it was just done to vapors, but then in 1901 it was done to liquid oils. Hydrogenation adds hydrogen atoms to unsaturated fats, eliminating double bonds and making them into complete or partial saturated fats.  Partial hydrogenation converts them into trans-unsaturated fats instead of hydrogenating them completely.  This turns liquid fats into solids and makes them stable, increasing shelf life and allowing them to be unrefrigerated.  In 1911, Proctor & Gamble started making the first hydrogenated shortening, Crisco.

Why was it invented?
Prior to 1910, dietary fats consisted of mostly butterfat, beef tallow, and lard.  When the U.S. started growing soybeans they had an abundance of soybean oil and looked for something to do with it.  Meanwhile there was a shortage of butter, so they started hydrogenating the soybean oil to make it solid and *poof* you have a cheap substitute for butter that they would call margarine.  People liked margarine because you could spread it on a piece of toast right out of the refrigerator, unlike butter.  Hydrogenated oils also worked better in baked goods than lard.  Production of hydrogenated oils increased steadily until the 1960's as it was cheaper than butter and then people began to argue that trans fats or margarine was healthier than saturated fats of butter.  Processed foods like packaged cookies and cakes often have partially hydrogenated oils so they have a long shelf life.  If they were made with real food ingredients like butter, they would have to be refrigerated and would go bad within a week.  This is the main reason trans fat bombard our grocery shelves.

The problem
As early as 1956 there was suggestion that trans fats were increasing coronary artery disease but it mostly went unstudied until the 1990's.  In 1994 it was estimated that trans fat alone caused 30,000 deaths in the U.S. each year from heart disease.  By 2006 it was estimated that around 206,000 deaths were caused by trans fat.  Trans fat increases LDL (bad cholesterol) while also decreasing HDL (good cholesterol).  In comparison, saturated fat increases LDL but it does not decrease HDL.  The health concerns are not just heart disease, but trans fat has been linked to Alzheimers, Cancer, Diabetes, Obesity (duh on that one), Liver Dysfunction, Infertility in women, and depression.

FDA has required labeling of trans fat on nutrition labels but the problem is that they only require it to be listed if it has .5 g or more.  So a product can contain .49 g per serving and it will show as 0 g trans fat and even be advertised as "Trans Fat Free".  This is why it is so important to read the ingredients.  Anything that has "partially hydrogenated oils" in the ingredient list means that it has trans fat and you should drop it like its hot.

With that long list of adverse health effects, this is why I say that trans fat is not ok to eat, even in moderation, yet most of America eats them daily.  If our food industry doesn't have a serious overhaul in the next few years, all of our children will be consuming these fats whether you want them to or not, probably daily.

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