Transfatty What?… do fat make you fat?
Trans fatty acids have been in the news quite a bit recently, especially now that food manufacturers have to disclose their presence on package labels, but we have to backtrack a bit to see why.
When vegetable oil processors thought it would be cool to make their products stay solid at room temperature, like butter and lard, they came up with a process called hydrogenation which yielded margarine and shortening. Crisco (USA) Stork (UK) by the way, of which I must have eaten a ton in baked goods when I was a kid, is hydrogenated cottonseed or soybean oil.
Nobel Prize winner Paul Sabatier (1854-1941, at right) is considered the father of the hydrogenation process. He discovered in 1897 that the metal, nickel, catalyzes, or facilitates, the attachment of hydrogen to carbon compounds.
In the actual process, workers heat the oil to very high temperatures and bubble hydrogen gas through it in the presence of nickel or some other catalytic metal. Since the vegetable oils are unsaturated, they can take on a few more hydrogens.
When they do, the molecule stiffens, and the fat is now closer to a solid. They can control just how firm it gets by how long they pump the gas through. That’s why you’ll sometimes see the term ‘partially hydrogenated’ on ingredient labels.
What also happens during hydrogenation, or later, during high heat cooking with the processed oils, is the formation of molecules so strangely configured that they’re completely unsuitable for use in our bodies.
As an added bonus, the double bonds in these foreign fatty acids are easily broken, allowing the formation of free radicals- highly reactive molecules with an unpaired electron, just looking for something to grab on to.
Promotion of breast cancer, heart disease, diabetes, weakened immune systems and hormonal dysfunction are just some of the maladies for which studies have implicated these unnatural trans fats.
The point I’m trying to make in presenting all this information is that, yes, there are bad fats, but there are good fats, as well. Consider that the traditional fats eaten by our ancestors, and cultures around the world, were more often saturated than not, but that cardiovascular disease was almost unknown before the introduction of hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Our bodies badly need saturated fats- they make up half or more of our cell walls, they bolster our immune systems, nourish our heart muscle, carry important fat soluble vitamins and antioxidants, and, in the case of butter, contain anti-fungal, anti-microbial and anti-cancer agents.