Trans-Fats Translated: What is the Deal with Hydrogenated Oils?

Health & Wellness on 07.11.11
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Image credit: Carolyn Coles/CC

You are what you eat. Nature provides complex but effective pathways to take the nutritional building blocks provided in our diets for growing, repairing, signaling, and more. But what happens when the building blocks we are feeding into this perfectly balanced mechanism were never foreseen by nature?

What is a Trans-fat?

Chemists use the terms cis- and trans- to describe two different shapes of the same molecule. The term cis-fat is used to describe a fat molecule that has its two hydrogens on the same side of the molecular chain, while the fat chain continues out on the opposite side from the hydrogens. In a trans-fat, there is one hydrogen atom and one piece of the carbon chain on each side.

Because hydrogen atoms are smaller than the carbon chain, this affects how the molecule bends. Imagine a fancy ladder with two hinges. If you bend both hinges the same direction, you get a ladder shaped like a table. If one hinge bends the opposite direction from the other, you get a shape like a step. Same ladder, different shapes.

Nature creates mostly cis-fats. This is because nature uses tiny biochemical machines to build molecules, and the machines tend to work always along one direction. Technology (such as hydrogenation of vegetable oils) generally creates a mixture of shapes, because technology just throws atoms and/or molecules together with heat and pressure, maybe a catalyst, doing the work. The result is rather random, as opposed to the consistent output of our little biochemical machines.

Hydrogenating vegetable oil has a number of advantages for the food service industries. It helps food scientists create foods with great textures by allowing them to fine-tune the point at which the fat melts compared to the temperature in your mouth. Hydrogenated oils have longer shelf lives and can improve food handling. And, best of all, hydrogenated vegetable oils are cheap.

What are the Effects of Eating Trans-fats?

There are some naturally ocurring trans-fats. This fact is often used to suggest that all trans-fats must be safe. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests consuming natural trans-fats does not have the same risks as the technologically created trans-fats. Because consumption of natural trans-fats is so low, studies have not been able to conclusively prove that natural trans-fats are beneficial, or at least harmless, but there does not appear to be the link to disease which can be seen relative to consumption of partially hydrogenated oils.

On the other hand, evidence of potential harm from technologically generated trans-fats is now so widely accepted, that the food services industry has begun voluntarily eliminating trans-fats from the foods they sell, as noted by bold marketing claims of "0 trans-fats" or "trans-fat free". Studies most strongly support a link between artificial trans-fats and heart disease.

OK, heart disease. But surely my kids don't need to worry about that for years; can they still enjoy their processed foods without worries? The evidence for other effects (such as diabetes, Alzheimers, ADD/ADHD, and others) of trans-fats is not so strong -- but also not sufficiently studied.

The bottom line is this: our bodies want to use the building blocks in our food. A trans-fat is similiar to a natural fat, and our bodies will use trans-fats in all the ways that natural fats are used. For example, imagine incorporating these strangely shaped fatty acids into cell membranes. Now imagine nature's carefully designed gateways for chemical messengers to enter and leave cells. Where a normally shaped fat results in a doorway that swings perfectly on its biochemical hinges, the trans-fat results in a squeaky, sticky doorway.

When we eat artificially created fats, we are effectively guinea pigs in an experiment into how much we can mess with nature before nature bites back. Your kids are growing fast, using the nutritional building blocks you give them at a much greater rate than an adult body does.

So Are Foods with Zero Trans-fats Good for My Kids?

Sadly, "zero trans-fats" has become a favorite of marketers. But zero trans-fats tells you nothing about the nutritional content of the product. If it is still a processed food, high in natural fats, not to mention salt and sugar, then moderation is the rule. Don't let the good feeling from seeing that bold claim on trans-fats overcome your natural sense of caution.

But do keep in mind that even where trans-fat bans are in place, a minimal amount of trans-fats may still be permitted. So if the label does not say trans-fat free, look for terms like "partially hydrogenated" on the label.

More importantly, help your child get their fats, and other nutrition, from sources as close to natural as possible. Keep healthy snacks around, and look for simple recipes you can cook yourself rather than purchasing prepared convenience foods. Take care that what goes in builds a body your child will be happy in for a lifetime.


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