The Truth About Fats IV: Hydrogenation And Trans Fats – The Kitchen Rag

In a previous article I elaborated on vegetable oil extractions with the description of the solvent-plus-high-heat method. Today I will venture further and explain the concept of hydrogenated oil as one of the leading causes of cancer and heart disease in the US.

What is hydrogenation?
Hydrogenation is the process through which vegetable oils – which are typically liquid at room temperature – are turned into solid fats by the addition of hydrogen atoms. Manufactures accomplish this by mixing the sensitive vegetable oils with tiny particles of nickel oxide.

The oil with its nickel catalyst is then subjected to hydrogen gas in a high-pressure, high temperature reactor. Next, soap-like emulsifiers and starch are squeezed into the mixture to give it a better consistency; the oil is yet again subjected to high temperatures when it is steam-cleaned. This removes it’s unpleasant odor. Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, Page 14

Why the process of hydrogenation?
Beef tallow, lard, butter, ghee, and coconut butter where the original ingredients used to bake pastries, make delicious soups, fry french fries, etc. At the turn of the century, food manufacturers hit the jack pot and began converting cheap, rancid vegetable oil into solid bricks of fat that acted similar to lard, butter, and beef tallow in pastries.

There were sacks and sacks of them lying around without much use. In fact, the tiny black seeds were hard to store because, if left alone, they would ferment and make a terrible stink. Chemists recognized that odoriferous volatiles meant the oil was reacting with oxygen, and they smelled opportunity. The reactive nature of the oil meant that it had potential to be chemically modified for a variety of purposes, and, soon enough, they found a way to spin this worthless by product of the textile industry into solid gold.
Katherine Shanahan, Deep Nutrition, Page 174

What are trans-fats?
According to McGuire and Beerman (2011) fatty acids that have hydrogen atoms positioned on the same side of the double bond, result in a cis double bond, and trans-fatty acids that have hydrogen atoms on opposite side of the double bond result in a trans double bond. In latin cis means “on the same side” and trans means “across”. While there is a very small amount of trans fatty acids that naturally occur in dairy and beef products, hydrogenated vegetable oils and vegetable shortening are the main carriers of the majority of trans fatty acids that we ingest. In fact, the naturally occurring trans fats in dairy and beef are almost negligible and since they are not artificially created, the body seems have adapted to digest them with no side effects.


How does the body react to ingesting trans fatty acids?
The fats and oils that we ingest on a daily basis are made out of triglyceride molecules. Triglycerides are made from one molecule of glycerol and three fatty acids. The digestion of fats doesn’t really start until they reach the small intestine where the gall bladder secretes bile and the pancreas sends armies of lipase enzymes to break down the esteric linkages between fatty acids and glycerol. This process takes place farther away from the double bonds in the triglyceride. Unfortunately, the position of the double bond (trans or cis) would signal the body that the triglyceride is different. If that were the case our emergency system would kick in and refuse to absorb the intruder trans fatty acid. But the enterocytes, which are small finger-like hairs that absorb nutrients from the small intestine, receive them without checking the fatty acid’s configuration. Lipids, however, need to be packaged in a water-soluble substance in order to be carried through the blood vessels delivering nutrients to our cells. The “fat packages” that carry fatty acids are called lipoproteins. Doctor Shanahan has a example for the way they work.

Lipoproteins are designed like M&Ms: just as the candy’s coating prevents the chocolate inside from getting all over your hands, the protein coat enables lipoproteins to circulate throughout your body without getting their messy insides smeared on your arterial walls. Deep Nutrition, Page 188


There are many ways through which fats get transported through the blood stream besides the small intestines, like the skin, brain, liver and other organs. However lipids are always carried in a small protein coat. The protein coat is not designed randomly says Doctor Shanahan (2009). “The cells of our bodies must recognize lipoproteins as sources of fatty nutrients. So the protein coating (made of apoproteins) also serves as a kind of bar code describing the particle’s origin and content”. When the bar-code is damaged, cells will not accept the content of the package and the package wanders aimlessly though your blood stream.  The bigger lipoprotein packages carry low density lipoproteins, or LDL. The smaller packages carry high density lipoproteins, or HDL. Trans fatty acids get packaged into the bigger lipoprotein packages. Doctor Shanahan explains that a lipoprotein easily gets damaged by sugar through a process called glycation:

(The image below is lipoprotein structure.)

In 1988, researchers working in Lyon, France discovered that when the labels on HDL particles got jammed up with sugar, they simply fell off. The study was done in ab test tube, where denuded HDL particles adhered to the glass. In your body, the naked fat would be exposed to the blood. Let me first point out that one of the common findings in diabetic patients is a low HDL level. One possible explanation is that excessive sugar in their blood has knocked the coats off their HDL, and the naked particles have fallen out of circulation.

And what about LDL? In 1990, another experiment investigated what sugar does to LDL. This time,the labels didn’t fall off, but rather became deranged as to illegible and unrecognizable to hungry cells. As a result, glycated LDL particles stay in circulation too long, which would explain some diabetic have high LDL levels: with so many undeliverable LDL packages floating around they start adding up. Page 195

When the contents of small packages get spilled in the blood stream the body can easily clean up the mess. Triglycerides with trans double bonds (trans fats) cannot be accommodated in the smaller, high-density lipoproteins (HDL). They are consequently transported in our blood in larger, low-density lipoproteins (LDL). This means that any trans fat that we eat should directly increase the amount of LDL in our blood. Many people mistakenly think that LDL is universally bad for you. In fact, it is not large lipoprotein packages that clog you arteries but the fatty acids inside. If an LDL lipoprotein carrying trans fatty acids gets mutated by sugar molecules then your arteries are in big trouble.

Large swaths of the cell membrane are scorched as Zombie-fats spawn and free radicals propagate across the surface, incinerating everything they touch – ion channels, sugar transporters, hormone receptors. This disables, and ultimately destroys, fucntional cells. This is how free radicals fry arteries. Over the years, the damage can become so advanced that it is visible to the naked eye. It looks like a fried chicken skin. And it’s about as cripy and weak as a fried chicken skin too, and tears more easily then the unfried version. Free radical chain reactions have weakened the underlying collagen scaffolding and polymerized the arterial wall into a kind of crunchy protein plastic. Now the artery can easily rupture and bleed. If blood ever contacts collagen directly it will clot, plugging up the artery. And that’s how you get a heart attack or a stroke. So it’s a blood clot, not a fat, that shuts off the blood flow. That is why ER doctors treat heart attacks and strokes with clot busters, not fat busters. Page 198


What are the health risks of eating hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils?
The increase in heart attacks is only one of the few consequences of ingesting trans fats. Some other conditions that can develop due in part to consumption of trans fats are:

  • Alzheimer’s
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Liver toxicity
  • Depression

I will not go into depth about these other heath problems. If you are interested in reading more just, google trans fats plus any of the conditions listed above.


What food contain trans fats?
If you are interested in staying away from this poisonous substance as much as I am you will begin reading every label at the grocery store. I never wanted to be one of those “health nuts” who would spend five minutes of their lives in the aisle reading a label. Unfortunately, folks, half of our food is not fit for human consumption. Or don’t you think that high rates of heart disease and cancer have anything to do with the food we ingest on a daily basis? I’m suspicious… If there is something I can do that will probably prevent the degeneration of my cells, I will do it. If I do end up developing arterosclerosis at least I will know I have done my best to treat my body well. So if you are in the same boat, read those labels! Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils are trans fats. Margarine and vegetable shortening contain trans fats. Although there is a lot of literature online about the negative impact trans fats have on health, there seems to a be confusion about trans fats in relation to hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. They are all trans fats. Fast food, junk food, more than 80% of the prepackaged food at the grocery store contains trans fats. Please read here for more details on this confusion. Did you know that the french fries at a MacDonald’s in New York have twice the amount of trans fats that Hungary uses and and 28 times more than in Denmark where trans fats are restricted?  Choose to be informed! If one of you favorite snacks at the store has hydrogenated vegetable oil you can place a request with your grocery store to carry an alternative. Companies want to keep their consumers happy. The change will happen if enough people take active steps and refuses to eat highly toxic food.

The World Health Organization (2003) recommends that trans fats be limited to less than one percent overall energy intake, due to numerous studies that link trans fatty acids to Heart Disease. Denmark and Switzerland are the only two countries who have completely banned partially hydrogenated oils. More and more countries are following suit, like Argentina and Brazil, who have both banned oils that contain more than 2% trans fats. Unfortunately, in the Unites States the situation is a little different. According to the FDA, consumers in US consume about 5.6 grams trans fats per day! Yes, manufacturers are required to note trans fats on the label, but if a food contains only 0.5 grams then it can be labeled as 0 g. on the label. 0.5 + 0.5  + 0.5 = I will let you do the math on how much trans fats we eat when we think we are in the clear. Institutional packaging such as is found in schools, cafeterias, and hospitals doesn’t have to be labeled for trans fats! We are feeding our children, our sick, and our elderly trans fats everyday! ADHD anyone? Cancer? Alzheimers? My bet is that this is not a coincidence. Go here to read the full article.

Margarine was invented in the 1800’s during the rule of Emperor Napoleon the III, by a chemist, Hyppolyte Mege-Mourie, who found a way to feed the armies and lower classes with something cheaper than butter.

He found that squeezing slabs of tallow under pressure extracted oily elements that fused into a solid when churned together with skim milk. The dull grey material had a pearly sheen so Mege-Mourie called it margarine, after the Greek margarites, meaning pearl.
Katherine Shanahan, Deep Nutrition, Page 173

The French never really embraced the grey looking butter substitute but the American scientists and food industry saw a great opportunity in the chemical reaction. Together, they set up to reinvent margarine in begining in the 20th century. The results were a goldmine. But making margarine from beef tallow was not cheap enough. So instead they eventually opted for something cheaper: cottonseed, soy beans, canola seeds, rape seeds, etc.

Parting Thoughts 
I began the research trans-fats having a good understanding of why trans fats are detrimental to health. However, I had no idea that the situation was so serious. They are more toxic than any nutrition or science text book ever led me to believe. I am worried about the health of this nation and the health of anyone eating 5.6 grams or more of hydrogenated vegetable oil per day. My hope is that this post will increase awareness and vigilance among my friends, my family, my community, and anyone else who happens to read it.

Photo 1, source,