Hydrogenated Fat
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | March 19, 2002

One topic that we get frequent questions about is dietary fats, especially hydrogenated fats. Let's begin by defining exactly what hydrogenated fats are and why they generate so much interest.

Hydrogenated fats begin life as a liquid oil such as vegetable or soybean oil. Because these natural oils contain a high percentage of unsaturated fat, they are liquid at room temperature. That's fine for making salad dressings, but other types of food products can turn out softer than desired. Compounding the problem, unsaturated fats have a tendency to turn rancid when left at room temperature because of the interaction with oxygen. If you use these oils at home, that's not a problem, but if you're a commercial food manufacturer, your products have a limited time on the shelf before they start tasting bad and smelling funny.

To counteract the problem of unsaturated oils, manufacturers use hydrogenated oils. Hydrogenation is a chemical process used to make oils more stable at room temperature. Essentially, the oils are boiled with a metal catalyst and hydrogen gas. The more hydrogenation, the more solid and the more saturated (with hydrogen) the oil becomes. This allows manufacturers of foods and food supplements to use a little hydrogenated fat and have products that will last longer on store shelves and in your pantry.

The source of concern for many people is that the hydrogenation process can produce more than one form of the individual fatty-acid molecule. Research has shown that the trans form of a fatty acid is associated with higher cholesterol levels and an increased risk of heart disease because it's easier for the liver to make cholesterol from saturated fat than from unsaturated fat.

Because trans fatty acids have received so much press, people have a tendency to react unfavorably when they see any product with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on a food label. Should you be concerned about these types of products?

Yes and no. Keep your total food intake in mind. If you eat a diet high in processed foods, especially foods such as baked goods, potato and corn chips, stick margarines, and food from fast-food restaurants, then yes, you should be concerned--these are the sources for the highest quantities of hydrogenated fats and subsequently, trans fatty acids as well. However, if you eat reasonably, including fruits, vegetables, whole grain products, lean meat, and meal-replacement bars and if you take a food supplement that has hydrogenated oils listed on the label, the quantity of fat in your total intake is usually so low that it will have no negative impact on your overall health.

Remember this: if you have the time to purchase the best ingredients and prepare all your meals yourself, and you don't overeat, then you control the amount of hydrogenated fats you and your family will eat. If like most of us, you are constantly on the go and you rely on processed foods for some of your meals because they are convenient and save time, then select those products with low amounts of saturated fats and be sure that "hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" is far down on the list of ingredients. That's a reasonable thing to do. That's the Better Life Unlimited way.
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