Trans Fats – A History of Profit
Trans fats have two hydrogens across from each other surrounding the double bond. Trans just means “across,” from each other in the unsaturated bond in this term. What? Trans fats are unsaturated? Yes, they are. Look at the double bond shown in the picture. There is room for two more hydrogens around that bond. This does not occur in nature, meaning if you grab some nuts to munch on or slice up an avocado (both are rich in unsaturated fats) there will be no trans fats. Trans fats occur when scientists sloppily blast hydrogens into unsaturated fats.
Why would a scientist do something like that? Well, ironically, right around the time of the was famous now increasingly infamous Ancel Keys’ study suggesting that saturated fats were unhealthy, there were a lot of food companies that were making a lot of money from industrialized foods. Food industrialization was all the rage (who didn’t want those fancy new packaged foods?) and vegetable oils were cheaper for food manufacturers to use. The problem was that they were often unsaturated which meant they went bad faster than the commonly used animal fats of that day.
Food manufacturers wanted to make foods that would be shelf stable. You know, like those snack cakes that can sit until the end of time and not go stale? And they wanted to do it with cheap oils to maximize profit. It’s quite interesting how that study that Ancel Keys did on saturated fats was not solely with saturated fats. There were trans fats mixed in. This is something he mentioned but did not expand upon, to the detriment of many. The study showed a possibility for the increase in heart disease and saturated fats were the scape goat. Great news for the food manufacturers. Bad news for everyone eating trans fats.
Why Are Trans Fats So Bad?
Remember above when I told you how fats are used to make up cell membranes? Well it turns out that the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats actually affects the function of the membrane. Saturated fats leave less space for nutrients to pass in and out while unsaturated fats leave gaps for things to pass through. Too much of either one can be bad. A cell membrane that is too rigid can lead to malfunction because oxygen and certain other nutrients can’t get in (ones that travel through the membrane directly) and a cell membrane that’s too leaky can’t keep in nutrients.
If you look again at the picture of the trans fat (figure above) you will notice it is straight. If a cell membrane has too many of these, rigidity and nutrient blockage is imminent. What happens if an oxygen tries to pass by to get into the cell? Will it react with that double bond and oxidize the fat? Maybe. The saturated fat is straight but doesn’t have that issue. I guess you could say the trans fat has the worst of both worlds. So where saturated and unsaturated both have their issues, they work together to create a balance. Trans fats really have no benefit at all so an abundance of these can definitely cause problems.
There was at least one study done on the effects of eating trans fats on LDL cholesterol. This study showed that eating trans fats increased the number of LDL’s while decreasing their size. Smaller size means less able to fix damage. This study also showed that the effect was dose dependent. This makes for a reasonable assumption that the more trans fats one eats, the more LDL’s they will have. LDL’s are the body’s attempt at fixing damage in the arteries. Does the trans fat simply increase the LDL’s or is it causing damage by negatively affecting cell membranes, leading to the body creating more LDL’s?
There are other studies showing that trans fat can cause depression, fertility issues, weight gain… the list goes on.
How To Avoid Trans Fats
- Ignore “trans fat free,” labels. Companies are allowed to claim that as long as one serving size has less than one gram of trans fat. It’s very easy to cut a serving size to near nothing and make that claim.
- Read the ingredients. This is something that I will say time and time again. This is where the most useful information is. Do not buy anything that has the words “hydrogenated,” or “partially hydrogenated,” on it.
- Cook with oils that are high in saturated fat. Remember, basic chemistry will tell you that saturated fats are more stable under reactive conditions. Heat is a universal chemical reaction. The more stable your fat, the less likely trans fats will be formed with cooking.
- Keep your oils that are high in unsaturated fats in a cool, dark, place. Make sure your flax, olive, or other oil comes in a dark-colored bottle so you know it has been protected thus far, and use it up quickly, as once it is opened the air begins to oxidize it.