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First we thought it was cholesterol… wrong. Then we thought it was saturated fat… wrong. Now, we understand the real culprit clogging our arteries, messing with our cholesterol levels and contributing to worldwide heart disease to be: Trans-fats. These not-quite-fully saturated fats are inside much of our processed foods—from donuts and burgers to popcorn and pretzels, to the even unsuspected soda or cereal! And they’ve been wreaking havoc on our bodies for the last century of our manufactured food industry. But what’s the difference between “partially hydrogenated oil” and just “hydrogenated oil?” It may come as a surprise, but the partially hydrogenated ones are worse—far worse—than any other fat known to man.

Understanding Hydrogenation

To understand what exactly partially hydrogenated oil is, let’s start with fats 101. All oils and fats, whether butter, olive oil or canola oil, are composed of fatty acids, which are molecules of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. The more hydrogen atoms present in a fat, the more saturated that fat becomes, and consequently, the more solid at room temperature that fat becomes. Think of olive oil, which is relatively low in saturated fats and quite liquid at room temperature, versus coconut oil, which is high in saturated fats and usually solid at room temperature.

To have a fat be partially solid is a trait that food manufacturers crave; it makes foods flaky, buttery, textured and stable on the shelf. But they don’t want a fat that’s too solid, or else it compromises those yummy traits of said foods. So we want them partially solidified—enter the method of partial hydrogenation.

To make partially hydrogenated oils (those that are partially solidified), hydrogen atoms are added to liquid fats like soybean oil, rendering a fat that’s partially solidified, partially filled with hydrogen atoms, and partially kinked. That last point is very important; it’s what makes partially hydrogenated oil so dangerous.

How They Affect the Body

These kinked, partially hydrogenated oils literally build up inside the body, sticking to each other, forming longer, unbranched chains that continue to grow and kink, linking up sticky end to sticky end, and they eventually grow so large inside the body that microscopes can physically spot them inside of us. They bioaccumulate inside our bodies, the same way mercury and heavy metals bioaccumulate inside a tuna in the ocean. And all the while, these fats increase our LDL cholesterol while lowering our HDL, the healthy kind. It’s a recipe for disaster.

“Numerous studies have found that trans fats raise our risk of heart disease,” said Mary Beth Sodus, a registered dietitian at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “They can also contribute to an increase in total cholesterol levels and a drop in the healthy HDL cholesterol. These man-made fats are much worse for you than any other natural fat, even the saturated fats found in butter and beef.”

The funny thing is, if scientists were to fully hydrogenate these liquid oils in the first place, they’d be left with just a saturated fat—which isn’t nearly as dangerous as these partially hydrogenated ones. Saturated fats are at least converted by the body into oleic acid, a relatively harmless monounsaturated fat, and they don’t have the same detrimental effects on cholesterol levels. Alas, our gas station fudgy cakes don’t benefit from saturated fats the same way they do from partially hydrogenated oils; and so the latter goes into the cake, and into our arteries.

What to Look For

New York City was the first city to ban trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) from its restaurants, and the rest of the nation was fast behind with similar measures… but the fat lingers in our packaged foods, and that’s where we get most of it (about 80% of our trans-fat intake comes from packaged foods). Be aware of the foods that are most likely to contain trans fats:

  • Fast foods – fried chicken, biscuits, fried fish sandwiches, French fries, fried apple or other pie desserts
  • Donuts, muffins
  • Crackers
  • Many cookies
  • Cakes, cake icings and pies
  • Microwave popped corns
  • Canned biscuits

… and keep a lookout for “trans fats” on your nutrition labels. Even .5 grams of trans fats indicates the presence of partially hydrogenated oil (even if it doesn’t read as such on the ingredients list). Every bit adds up; this is not one ingredient you want to be eating “in moderation.” Even the mainstream experts are in agreement on this one.

Image: Charles Haynes