We’ve all heard about trans-fats in our diets and how they’re bad for us. Some of us have some vague notion about how they are found in the unhealthiest of foods. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they are indeed found in crackers, popcorn, sweets and all manner of indulgent treats.
If you’re like most people, you’ll reason that you don’t eat too much of this stuff, so you’ve probably got nothing to worry about.
Trans-fats are in almost everything these days. It’s probably a major part of your diet as it’s found in almost every food product that comes together in a factory. Typically they’ll be found in breads, pastries, donuts, muffins, soups, biscuits, sauces, cookies, cakes, pies, crackers, chips, instant-flavoured coffee drinks, the usual fast food suspects like fried chicken and french fries, and almost every ready-meal.
Then there’s margarine. You may have been told is a healthy alternative to butter but it’s actually one of the highest concentrations of the stuff you’ll find anywhere.
Elsewhere, the establishment has made moves to remove them from the food chain altogether. In the states of New York and California they’ve been banned, while Denmark was the first country to ban them outright. The results have been incredible. It is hypothesised that the Danish government’s efforts to decrease trans fat intake from six grams to one gram per day over 20 years is related to a 50% decrease in deaths from ischemic heart disease.
Amazingly though, the UK food authorities appear to still be fine with their use!
Only in 2013 did the British Heart Foundation finally come forward and admit that the consumption of these sorts of fats and oils are fundamentally to blame for the massive rise in cardio-vascular disease in this country over the last 70 years. They have, in effect said that by condemning saturated fat they have been hounding the wrong man for over half a decade.
Despite this enormous U-turn, this hugely influential organization, as I write this, still hasn’t updated the information on their website to advise consumers on a ‘discovery’ that others have known about for decades.
So why are these foods containing trans fats so harmful and how do we recognize them?
Start by looking at food labels. You won’t see the phrase “trans fats” here but you will see “vegetable fat”, “vegetable oil”, “sunflower oil”, “rapeseed oil” , “soybean oil” and other variations. Sometimes you’ll spot the word “hydrogenated” as well, which describes the horrendous process that it performed upon them.
Hydrogenation is the truly charmless process of heating all types of vegetable seed oil up to structurally damaging temperatures and forcing hydrogen bubbles through it. The natural fatty acids in the oil then ‘pick up’ some of the introduced hydrogen, which has the effect of making the substance less viscous (runny) and therefore denser.
If the oil is ‘fully hydrogenated’, a solid fat type substance is created from the previously runny oil. But if the process is stopped part way through, a semi-solid partially hydrogenated oil with a consistency similar to butter is the result, only it’s a whole lot cheaper (and nastier).
In the past, natural coconut oil was used by food producers to create a rich, even texture in food. Nowadays however, they turn to partially hydrogenated fats with their artificially smooth, silky consistency and low cost, to create products with a similar feel for a greater profit.
Unfortunately hydrogenated fat is pretty much inedible and fundamentally damaging!
What’s Wrong with Hydrogenation?
Vegetable oils become monumentally nasty when hydrogenated because they now contain high levels of trans fats: Their structure is altered at an atomic level and an otherwise normal fatty acid is “transmogrified” by high-heat processing. Nice!
These ‘Frankenstein’ fatty acids then have their atoms further messed about with by double-linking, cross-linking, bond-shifting, twisting and whole host of other exciting things that just serve to make them even more lethal.
Even though the sound of all this fiddling doesn’t sound too appetising in itself, the real problem emerges once this unnatural fatty substance gets into the body. The chemically active part has been messed up, but the “anchor end” (the part that attaches to the cell wall) is essentially unchanged. The body doesn’t detect all the devious skulduggery that has gone on, so ushers these odious compounds to take up important positions somewhere in the body’s cell walls. But like a drunken security guard, these modified atoms are totally incapable of doing their job properly – letting damaging foreign bodies pass right through, but stopping supplies of vital goodies from getting in.
In the very unlikely event that you’re still shrugging your shoulders and thinking ‘so what’ – you should know that this oil/fat hybrid is then literally steamed and perfumed to remove its foul odour. This stuff is actually rancid and would otherwise stink far worse than rotten meat or butter. Thanks to this final, sneaky process though, the consumer will never find out.
Transfats will give you heart-disease
A 2004 study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard School of Public Health showed that in postmenopausal women, the more trans fats they ate and, to a much lesser extent, the more carbohydrate they ate, the worse their atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) became over time. Interestingly, the more saturated fat they ate, the less their atherosclerosis progressed; in the group with the highest intake of saturated fat, the atherosclerosis actually reversed over time.
Trans fats will also make you fat
Research indicates that trans fats cause comparatively more weight gain than the same diet with monounsaturated fats and lead to a redistribution of body fat tissue to the abdominal area, the riskiest place to carry extra padding. Additionally, they’re associated with inflammation and atherosclerosis, the processes responsible for cancers, heart conditions and most other modern diseases.
If it’s so bad, why do manufacturers use it? Well it’s about profit again of course. Trans fats produce a crispy, flaky feel to food and extend it beyond its natural shelf-life. Customers, unless they are biologists or nutritionists, have little idea what they are actually eating. Producers are forced by law to print this information on their labels, but I’m sure it hasn’t missed your notice that they do a fine job of disguising the truth in the tiniest writing, ambiguous E numbers, and various other forms of devious sneakery.
Once you start reading labels, you’ll realise that trans fats and vegetable oils are everywhere. So much mixed-ingredient food is contaminated with the stuff.
The other thing to realize is that the replacement of butter with margarine and vegetable oil has been one of the most harmful changes the west has made to its diet since we first walked out of the jungle.
So what can I use then?
Simple. Cook instead with:
- Butter or ghee
- Tallow and suet from beef and lamb
- Lard from pigs
- Chicken, goose and duck fat
- Coconut, palm and palm kernel oils
And for Salads:
- Extra virgin olive oil
Practically speaking then, this means cutting out all vegetable oils except coconut oil, olive oil and palm oil (none of which are made by crushing and processing seeds.) Specifically, do not eat or cook vegetable made from the contents of highly-processed seeds. Examples of these are sunflower, corn, safflower, cottonseed, peanut or soybean oil. Avoid these like the plague.
It’s sad though that this is the very material we have been advised to eat instead of consuming saturated fats [link]. Assuming you’re under the age of 60, you will never remember a time when animal fat was officially ‘OK’ to eat. You will have had the ‘animal fat is bad’ message fired at you from every angle for a lifetime and will probably have heard this message of doom millions of times.
The greatest thinkers of the 15th century thought the world was flat, and that stars were pin holes that let the light of heaven shine through. In just the same way, in time, the last 60 years of fat advice will also be proven irrefutably to be wrong. The damage this brief folly has done to our health however is immeasurable and it’s time for us to wake up to the truth.