What are trans fats?
Next time you reach for that “low-fat” margarine or Orio cookie think twice. For the past three decades the industry has been loading food with stuff called trans-fat under the innocuous name of “partially hydrogenated oil”. Trans-fats are a lot more dangerous than fat (saturated or unsaturated) or cholesterol (good or bad).
Why does the industry use trans-fats? Food prepared with partially hydrogenated oil has much longer shelf life because the oil does not become rancid, and also oil separation does not occur giving the food a more uniform texture (and “hiding” the greasy touch). Because of increased shelf life, it results in a lot of strategic savings for the manufacturer. A lot of profits for the manufacturer, but very bad for the consumer.
Trans-fats are basically oils that have been hydrogenated (partially or fully). Hydrogenation is a process in which hydrogen bubbles are passed through the oil at a certain temperature. This causes natural fat molecules to be “transmogrified” into a bizarre form – not occurring in nature.
Technically: “the hydrogen molecules attached at the center of the fatty acid carbon chain flips 180 degrees, which straightens the natural curve or kink in the typical cis-configured fat” [ref.1]
What makes them so dangerous?
There is reason why many countries have banned the use of trans-fats. In the USA, trans-fats is not banned, but the FDA requires all foods to declare the amount of trans-fats contents. While not federally banned, it has been banned at the state level. For example, New York City has banned restaurants and fast-food chains from using trans-fats.
What makes this fat so dangerous is that:
- The body has never seen it before in its six million years of evolution (after all it is man-made – an artificial fat); the body does not know how to handle it.
- Normal fat separates from the food easily (as easy as “oil and water don’t mix”) and is readily recognized by the body and gets flushed out easily. In contrast, trans-fats are molecularly locked into the food.
- Trans-fats not only increases LDL (bad cholesterol) but it also depletes the HDL (good cholesterol)!
- Cell membranes are made of phospho-lipids (a certain type of fat) which governs selectively what type of things can pass in and out of the cell. What happens is that trans-fats attach themselves to the cell membrane and they tend to clump around (due to their bizarre chemical structure), preventing the cell membrane from to doing its traditional role of gatekeeper job (that it was fine tuned doing via 6 million years of evolution).
- It increases the tendency of blood platelets to clump. These clumps build up (think of it just like dental plaque), and eventually can cause blocked arteries and heart disease.
- Trans-fats also prevent sugar from being absorbed and utilized by the cells (sugar is the source of energy for the cell), which results in cells crying out for sugar (energy), the body release more sugar into the blood stream (but they are not absorbed by the cell, and so on)… resulting in excessive sugar in the blood stream. This results in diabetes.
As a result, trans-fats accumulate in the body posing a serious health hazard. The number one growing problem among teenagers (and among many Americans in general) is obesity and is directly attributed to trans fats – when the body doesn’t know how to break it down, it will just tuck it away in your belly. You can be sure that the trans-fat from candy bar sticks right on to you than a natural (trans-fat free) candy bar. Cardiovascular disease follows suite.
What contains trans-fats?
Almost every manufactured food product – and just about all junk and fast food contains trans-fats! Just about all cookies, candies, peanut butter, french fries, margarine, and pastries (bread, tortilla, muffins, donuts). Anything that contains hydrogenated oil, partially hydrogenated oil, shortening, or vegetable shortening have been trans-fat’ed.
Use sesame oil, coconut oil, or olive oil. Make sure it is not refined (all refined oils are trans fat). Use butter instead of margarine. Even better than butter is to use ghee (clarified butter), which has been in use for centuries in India. You would think, for the amount of ghee that people consume in India, they would be falling dead like flies. Actually quite the contrary. There has been a high increase in heart disease distinctly in Southern India, that started around the same time when they rapidly switched to refined oils instead of ghee. Of course there are other factors that need to be taken into account such as life style, but the key is that this increase in heart disease coincides with the switch over to refined oils. In contrast, in Northern India where they still consume ghee there is less heart disease (in spite of the higher cholesterol content in ghee).
Don’t get fooled
Don’t be fooled by the label. The current FDA standards allow manufacturers to put “0 grams” for Trans Fat content, if they are below their minimal limit. But even the tiniest hydrogenation is extremely bad. For example peanut butter manufacturers are putting in their label “Trans Fats: 0 grams”. They argue that the amount of trans-fats is too negligible to have any effect. If that were to be the case then why do they hydrogenate it in the first place. Because it does have an effect – dramatic effect in the property of the peanut butter. A good illustration is non-transfat’ed organic peanut butter. In organic peanut butter you will see oil separation (the top 1/4 of the bottle has oil that has separated and is floating on top). In regular peanut butter which has been partially hydrogenated (and claims “zero” trans fats) there is no oil separation, the entire peanut butter has a uniform texture; the fat has been glued to the food, molecule for molecule, through hydrogenation. Look for the label “No Trans Fat” or “Trans-Fat Free” instead of the misleading 0% Trans Fat.