Trans-Fat: The Epic Saga


No one over 60 will ever forget the Chiffon Margarine commercials where Mother Nature herself is taken in by Chiffon’s butter like taste. She is peeved and the commercial closes with an enraged Mother Nature causing lightning strikes and saying, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”MotherNature

It turned out that ‘Mother Nature’ wasn’t fooled at all. By 1980, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, the main ingredient of margarine, and otherwise known as trans-fat, had been implicated in a long list of health risks. It increases risk for cardiac disease by decreasing the size of LDL particles. There will be a blog post on this soon, but large LDL particles do not get stuck in arteries and pose no risk; the tiny ones are killers. Trans-fats also reduce levels of HDL, the good cholesterol, and cause inflammation. When the body attempts to use them to build cell walls, defects arise. In fact, taken as a whole, some 30,000 premature deaths a year have been attributed to trans-fats in the diet. Remember to be cautious about accepting such numerical claims though they sometimes seem, as in this case, reasonable.

What are trans-fats? Fats circulate in the body as triglycerides. As the name implies, each triglyceride has three fat molecules attached. Saturated fat molecules are straight. Because of that, they stack and pack more easily and are typically solid at room temperature. Vegetable oils are wound up in curlicues and don’t want to stack. These stay liquid. The partial hydrogenation process forces hydrogen into the curly molecules thus straightening them out. They are then stackable like saturated fat, solid, and hence, with some food coloring, can be made to resemble butter.

The body doesn’t know quite what these are. Triglycerides made from them aren’t readily taken in by the cells, and so particles containing them shrink and shrink as they continue to circulate. This leads to the cardiac problems. If the cells do take them up and try to use them as cell wall material, defects result.

Now this has all been well known since the mid 80’s. There have been, as one would expect, many attempts at obfuscation by the various industries who might lose money should trans-fats be banned. However, to be perfectly clear, we do not need any artificial trans-fats at all, and no amount is safe.

So obviously any responsible government agency that was monitoring for this sort of thing would immediately do something, right? You would hope, but you would hope in vain. In 2006, about 25 years after the initial reports, the FDA sprung into action and required labeling of trans-fats on foods. That’s it. No ban, no warning, in fact, if under 1%, no labeling requirement either. In the meantime several other countries had banned trans-fats altogether.

Prior to late 2013, the FDA still had trans-fats on a ‘Generally recognized as Safe’ list. Now they are reconsidering it. Maybe next year there will be a change.

Why is the food industry allowed to continue, for 3 decades, a manufactured food practice that is known to be unhealthy? We just don’t know. Write your congressman. Better yet start a groundswell; let market forces do the work and don’t buy anything with artificial fats. Whose interests is the FDA protecting? Imagine the furor that would ensue if the CDC had the power and failed to prevent a pathogen that caused 30,000 deaths a year. Is it the money? Something is wrong with our priorities.

A couple of disclaimers: Naturally occurring trans-fats, like palm oil, are perfectly safe. Trans-palmitioleic acid, a naturally occurring dairy fat, has been shown to be associated with a decreased risk of diabetes. Saturated fat, as would be found in the real butter Mother Nature was waxing lyrical about in the Chiffon commercial, is not only safe, it’s healthy as well.

  1 comment for “Trans-Fat: The Epic Saga

  1. Don Weir
    June 21, 2015 at 5:55 am

    I have just had an angiogram and the doctor said I have considerable blockage in two or three heart arteries. I have been told I have to have surgery. Is it too late to reverse this plaque by any reasonable amount or should I start working on your advice after the operation. Thank You

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *