In the previous blog, Big Fat Controversy, we covered various types of fat, their composition, and their contribution, but we did not touch on trans fats. In this blog, we will do just that. We will also cover margarine, vegetable oils, and the interesting story they tell.
What are “trans fats?”
There are two broad types of trans fats found in foods: naturally-occurring and artificial trans fats. Naturally occurring trans fats are produced in the gut of some animals and foods made from these animals but exist in trace amounts. Artificial trans fats are industrially produced fatty acids that result in hydrogenation of vegetable oils (forcing hydrogen onto polyunsaturated fats).
You may remember from the Big Fat Controversy that saturated fats are complete with hydrogen atoms and, as such, exist as solids at room temperature. Well, you can probably guess that vegetable oil, having such a low viscosity, is an unsaturated fat requiring additional hydrogen atoms to become a solid at room temperature—hence, the hydrogenation process referred to earlier.
Where did trans fats come from?
The story dates back to 1869, when Emperor Napoleon III…that’s right…Napoleon of France offered a prize to anyone who could produce a cheap butter alternative for use by the armed forces and lower classes.
Note: Even today, we supply our men and women in the military with boxes of food that clearly state “For prison use only”. Having spent 15 years in the Marine Corps, I never complained. It beat an MRE (meal ready to eat) any day of the week!
A French Chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, created what he called Oleomargarine (later shortened to ‘Margarine’). The original process combined beef fat and skimmed milk. In 1871, a New Yorker named Henry W. Bradley patented a process of creating Margarine from vegetable oil combined with animal fats. In 1901, Wilhelm Normann, a German chemist, invented hydrogenation whereby gas is bubbled through the vegetable oil in the presence of a metal catalyst (nickel) at about 140°F. The result: hardened oil. Thus, began the industrialization of trans fats.
Saturated fat—the convenient suspect
According to Liz Wolfe, author of Eat the Yolks, the first recorded heart-attack occurred in 1912. By the 1930s, heart-attacks exceeded 3,000; and by the 1960s, over 500,000 deaths were attributed to heart-attacks. As awareness increased, public demand to capture the murderer intensified. In stepped saturated fat. At the time, we thought that saturated fat raised cholesterol, and that cholesterol caused heart-attacks. Therefore, saturated fat was, by extension, the guilty party. Conveniently, in stepped margarine and vegetable oil to save the day.
Margarine and partially hydrogenated shortening grew in popularity through World War II, partly due to rationed butter. The margarine market expanded as a budget butter replacement and was further marketed with its unique spreadable application straight out of the fridge. In the 1980s, however, it changed its image from cheap alternative to health food.
Through the early 1990s, health groups still demonized saturated fat in response to heart disease increases, but scientific evidence of the contrary was leaking out. According to Chris Masterjohn, a nutrition science expert, randomized control trials showed that polyunsaturated fats cannot reduce heart disease. No study on supplemental plant-based polyunsaturated fats being used instead of animal fats (made of saturated fat) showed a reduction in mortality. Interestingly, Masterjohn found these studies showed an increase of cancer after five years and a possible increase in heart disease risk.
Why do we call them vegetable oils?
I feel compelled to share another another enlightening fact about vegetable oil. We call it vegetable oil, perhaps because it has a healthy ring to it. But this “vegetable oil” is made of soy, corn, and canola. Soy is a legume, not a vegetable. Corn is a grain, not a vegetable. Canola is derived from a seed, not a vegetable. So, why do we call it “vegetable oil?” I think the answer is clear. Marketing and truth don’t always share a common agenda.
Why do companies still use trans fats?
Today, companies still use trans fats to process and fry foods. These foods include french fries, fried chicken, doughnuts, cookies, pastries and crackers. In the US, typical french fries have about 40% trans fat and many popular cookies and crackers range from 30% to 50% in trans fat. Doughnuts have about 35% to 40% trans fat.
Perhaps, the most attractive reason companies still use trans fats is related to their profit margins. Trans fats are inexpensive and easy to use. Commercial businesses can use trans fats in deep fryers many times over, before changing out the oils, thereby reducing costs. Trans fats have a much longer shelf life than natural foods which makes them logistically friendly throughout the supply chain. Since they are artificial, they are customized for texture and taste as well.
Why are they bad for us?
Practices throughout the late 20th Century of replacing saturated fats with trans fat products and Margarine resulted in an increase of cardiovascular diseases. History has certainly shown us that man-made highly processed foods have adverse effects on health. Trans fats are known to raise our LDL (bad cholesterol) and lower our HDL (good cholesterol). As a result, trans fats are associated with heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
How bad are trans fats?
According to a Danish Nutrition Council report, trans fats multiply the risk of developing coronary heart disease 10-fold. Trans fats also have a negative effect on the human fetus and newborns.
Nutritionists at Harvard University’s School of Health acknowledge the significant threat that trans fatty acids pose to our food supply. “By our most conservative estimate, replacement of partially hydrogenated fat in the U.S. diet with natural non-hydrogenated vegetable oils would prevent approximately 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year, and epidemiological evidence suggests this number is closer to 100,000 premature deaths annually.” If the 100,000 figure is correct, then an average of 274 people die prematurely every day from consuming trans-fats.
What should we do about it?
It appears many feel the government is responsible for the existence of trans fats and feel that trans fats should be outlawed. In contrast, I am a big fan of personal responsibility. Instead of blaming the government for our poor eating habits, we should simply stop buying products that contain trans fats. When a products stops selling, manufacturing stops.
Our health, both individually and as a country, depends on our education. The more nutritionally aware people become, the more positive changes will occur.
Today, we covered trans-fats, margarine, vegetable oils, and some history behind their commercialization. Before researching this, I would have never guessed trans fats date back to Napoleon’s day. I hope you enjoyed this glance into the history of our current day food influences. Above all, I hope you have had the same realization I have had in researching trans fats. I am done with them!
This blog concludes our nutrition segment of our physical self-development. In the next blog, we will discuss the value of sleep, how to achieve quality sleep, and the effects of nutrition on our sleep. Stay tuned!
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