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The nutritional "bad word" every label reader should be aware of is "hydrogenated." Zapping an unsaturated oil with high pressure hydrogen can turn the oil into saturated fat. (Hydrogen is forced into the empty parking spaces on the fat molecule.) This hydrogenation process is how vegetable oil is turned into margarine. Hydrogenated fats have two major economic advantages over natural saturated fats. They are cheaper and they have a longer shelf life. Hydrogenated fats and partially hydrogenated fats are everywhere in processed foods - added to cookies, crackers, and peanut butter, for example. Hydrogenated fats are also used instead of oil for frying in many restaurants and fast-food establishments because they stand up better to heat and can be used longer.
Hydrogenated oils are saturated fats and behave that way in the body. Crackers or cookies made with hydrogenated fats may proclaim themselves to be cholesterol-free, but a closer look at the label will show that the product still contains plenty of artery-clogging saturated fat. There's also a problem with these fats that the label won't tell you about.
Hydrogenated fats contain another kind of fat that falls outside of the saturated and unsaturated categories. These are trans fatty acids, or trans fats, so-named because the hydrogenation process transports hydrogen atoms across the fat molecule to a new location. Dr. Udo Erasmus in his book Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill aptly describes trans fatty acids as a "molecule that has its 'head on backwards'." Trans fats are as bad (or worse) for your arteries as saturated fats. A number of studies have shown that trans fats raise cholesterol levels in the blood. However, as of 1999, label laws in the United States do not require food manufacturers to include information about trans fats in nutrition labeling. So, a product whose label says it is low in heart-damaging saturated fat, may still contain a large amount of trans fats and be no better for you than a fast-food cheeseburger. You would never know this from the label. Also, because hydrogenated fats are so widely used in restaurants for deep-fat frying, the french fries so popular with children may be full of cholesterol-raising trans fats, even if the establishment's advertising claims it uses 100 percent vegetable oil for cooking.
Label loopholes. The real irony is that this labeling loophole also keeps consumers from being able to recognize foods that are low in trans fats. Most of the hydrogenated fats used by food processors are only partially hydrogenated. Some of these partially hydrogenated fats contain less saturated fat and fewer trans fats than others however, unless the product is a brand of tub margarine specifically trying to market itself to the few customers in the know about trans fat, there is no way of knowing how heart-threatening a particular food product is. Of course, one of the difficulties with putting information about trans fats on the nutrition label is that different batches of hydrogenated oils may contain different amounts of trans fats. Food processors would have to standardize the hydrogenation process and the oils they use to be able to give consumers accurate information.
Trans fats have found their way into most of the packaged foods bought by uninformed and unsuspecting consumers. Butter, which has gotten a bad rap because of saturated fat and cholesterol, has been replaced by margarine, which may also be bad news for cholesterol levels. True, foods made with hydrogenated fats are cheaper and last longer, but consumers pay a larger price in the long run, since trans fats provide little nutritional benefit to the body, except as an energy source. What's good for business in the short run is often bad for the body in the long run. When manufacturers chemically change a food, all sorts of unanticipated problems may result. This is especially true of hydrogenated fatty acids. Here's a summary of what literature has said about the problems of hydrogenated fats and trans fats:
Potato chips are one of the most heart-unfriendly foods. Most are high in fake fats, which gives them an enticing flavor. To keep one chip ahead of chip- savvy consumers, some potato chip manufacturers are beginning to add the fakest of fats - the indigestible ones. This marketing ploy may take our plump little fat lovers from the nutritional frying pan into the fire.
Here are some commercial foods that are notoriously high in hydrogenated fats:
Avoiding hydrogenated fats. Consumers can improve the quality of the food they buy. The principle of supply and demand suggests that if you demand less hydrogenated fat and more truthful labeling, food packagers will produce it. Here's what you can do:
Food manufacturers argue that health concerns about the hydrogenation of fats are more theoretical than real. Yet, a study of 80,000 women in the Harvard School of Public Health Nurses' study proved that the kind of fats a person eats is more important than the amount. In this study, women who consumed the most trans fats had a 53 percent greater chance of suffering a heart attack.
TASTES GREAT, EAT MORE
Burgers and fries from fast-food chains can't honestly be called complete "junk food," since they do contain some nutritious foods in addition to harmful ones. But remember: The goal of fast-food chains is to create a taste that makes you want more. Besides being more economical, hydrogenated oils give food a fatty taste that makes you want to eat more. The same craving cycle occurs with sugar. When you eat a high-junk-sugar food, your insulin levels rise, which causes your blood sugar to plummet from high to low. Even when the blood sugar is low, the insulin release may continue keeping blood insulin levels high, which increases your cravings for more sugar, and the cycle continues. As a result of the chemistry of cravings, people who eat more junk food crave more junk food; those who eat more nutritious foods crave more nutritious foods. The nutritionally rich get richer, and the nutritionally poor get poorer.