What to know: Hydrogenated fats
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.
They 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.
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:
- Hydrogenated fats act biochemically in the body like saturated fats.
- Trans fats can elevate blood cholesterol levels, similar to the cholesterol-raising effects of saturated fats.
- Trans fats raise the levels of LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol.
- Trans fats reduce levels of HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol. Raising the bad cholesterol and lowering the good cholesterol in the blood spells double trouble.
- Trans fats have been shown to decrease the body’s ability to produce natural anti- inflammatory prostaglandins.
- Eating a diet high in nutritionally worthless hydrogenated fats may lessen a person’s daily intake of other fats, especially essential fatty acids that are important for growth and function of vital organs, such as the brain. This is a concern especially in children and frequent fast food consumers whose daily diet is high in processed and deep fat-fried foods and snacks.
- Trans fatty acids may be linked to other health problems as well, including decreased testosterone, abnormal sperm production, and prostate disease in men; obesity, immune system depression, and diabetes.
Trans fats or hydrogenated fats may interfere with the ability of the cells of the body to metabolize the fats that are good for you.
This may damage cell membranes of vital structures, such as the brain and nerve cells. Cell membranes contain receptor sites for fat molecules, sort of like parking places that are specifically designed to receive certain molecules. When the right fatty acid arrives, it fills its assigned parking spot and contributes to the health of the membrane. However, trans fatty acid “cars” may also come along and squeeze into a space that doesn’t really fit these biochemical impostors. A sort of biochemical traffic jam occurs, and the right cars cannot get to where they need to be. Or, think of cell membranes as having millions of tiny locks, which nutrient molecules can enter like keys. Changing the shape of the molecule, which is what happens when a fat is hydrogenated, changes the shape of the key, and it doesn’t fit properly into the lock. Two problems can occur. Either the molecular misfit key is left to wander throughout the body, causing damage in other places, or these misfit keys keep pushing their way into the locks, damaging them, so that the right keys, the natural nutrients, no longer fit. At least in theory, hydrogenated fats can weaken cell membranes, keeping out needed nutrients and also allowing harmful ones to leak in. This may set the body up for chronic, degenerative diseases. This is why fake fats are becoming known in the medical community as “the silent killer.” We can take a tip from Mother Nature that trans fatty acids are not good for the body. Both the placenta and the brain have a biochemical way of filtering most trans fatty acids out, although the protection is not complete. If a diet is not overwhelmed with TFA’s, it can deal with a bit of them by metabolizing these fats as energy sources before they have a chance to do any cellular damage, and then use the good fats (the essential fatty acids) as healthy nutrients for the cells. Perhaps, a bit of trans fatty acids (which may occur naturally in some foods anyway) won’t harm the body but, like all other fats, excess will.
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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:
Write the FDA and ask that regulations be changed to require food manufacturers to list grams of trans fats on nutrition labels. Claims such as “low-cholesterol” or “low-saturated fat” should be prohibited on packaging of foods with high levels of cholesterol-raising trans fats. A consumer group that has done an excellent job of making the public more aware of this issue, as well as other nutrition concerns, is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer nutrition advocacy group that publishes the Nutrition Action Newsletter.
Look for newer labels, such as on some margarine, that proudly say “saturated-fat free” or “contains no trans fatty acids.”
Shun foods that contain the word “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list. Terms like “vegetable oil” or “cholesterol free” tell you nothing about the amount of trans fat in the food.
Avoid deep-fried foods, especially those at fast-food restaurants. If you must indulge, come right out and ask if the fries are immersed in oils containing hydrogenated or trans fats. Don’t settle for claims that the food is cooked in “100 percent vegetable oil.” That label lie camouflages a lot of hydrogenated fat. Can you imagine if people across the country walked into McDonald’s and asked the manager if the oil in the fryer was truly polyunsaturated or if it was really hydrogenated vegetable fat? Imagine how the marketing departments of fast- food chains would react. Soon there would be an advertising war over which French fries had the lowest amount of trans fatty acids.
Be suspicious of doughnuts from doughnut shops, since they don’t come with nutrition labels. Inquire about the oil the donuts were fried in. You can bet donuts will continue to be high in saturated fats and trans fats unless consumers complain.
If you use margarine instead of butter, choose one that boasts low levels of trans or hydrogenated fats. In general, whipped or tub margarine tend to be lower in saturated and trans fats than sticks. Some products contain a blend of butter and vegetable oil to provide the consistency of margarine but with no trans fats.
Even trendy restaurants that list the nutritional breakdown of popular entrees print only the amount of fat a food contains, not the type. Ask what oil is used and if it contains trans fats.
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.