A Trans Fat Primer
Pat Zifferblatt | August 26, 2008

Trans fats have recently been banned in New York City and other city agencies are going to follow suit in the coming months. But exactly what is a trans fat? Why is bad for you? That’s the focus of this Newsletter.

Background
Any fat that is firm at room temperature is considered to be stable. Liquid fats such as corn oil or safflower oil are liquid at room temperature. When liquid oil is used in baking, it’s more likely to turn rancid and the product will spoil much more quickly. Enter trans fats. A trans fat is a hydrogenated or partly hydrogenated oil from a vegetable source such as palm kernel oil or coconut oil. It’s called trans because the fat molecule is twisted in such a way that the body doesn’t metabolize it the same way as regular saturated fats.

In the early 1900s, a chemist was trying to make fats more stable in packaged foods. He found that when he boiled vegetable oils while infusing hydrogen gas, the oils became solid. This was much better for the newly created packaged-foods industry. Cookies, crackers, cakes, and all the other highly refined foods were now being manufactured and had to remain shelf stable for extended periods of time. The product he discovered was called Crisco and became the first solid shortening besides butter and lard.

The Problem
In the 1970s, scientists started to become alarmed at the rapid increase in cardiovascular disease in the population. Concurrently the amount of trans fats in the modern diet was also increasing. Doctors started telling their patients back in the 1940s and 1950s that butter was a saturated fat and not good for the vascular system, and people were advised by their doctors to switch to oleomargarine instead of butter. What the doctors didn’t know or recognize at that time was that the trans fats found in margarines were even more harmful than the saturated fats in butter.

Our diet has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. We eat too much of the wrong foods and we exercise too little. Results? A fat, sick society. Today, medical and scientific groups are pressuring food manufacturers to make refined foods healthier. So what’s the solution? Scientists know that people will most likely not change their eating habits unless they have to--people like their junk foods. The solution: let’s try to change the foods instead and make foods healthier.

Today we have a much better selection of healthier margarines in the dairy case--margarines that contain no trans fats. Fast-food restaurants now announce to their customers that there are no hydrogenated fats in their French fries--the calories are still the same, but the oils are healthier. We’re making progress, or at least we’re trying, I think. It’s up to you to decide about that issue!

Bottom Line
Limit your fat consumption and try to use mono and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil and canola oil whenever possible. The occasional use of a small amount of butter or healthier margarine is fine, but go easy. Make sure you read labels and the nutritional information in restaurants before you eat, and then make better choices. Your heart will love you for it!
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