Are Hydrogenated Fats Any Safer or Healthier Than Partially Hydrogenated Oils?
Trans fat has been proven to cause heart disease and all sorts of other health evils, to the tune of 30,000 to 100,000 deaths from heart disease pinned on trans fat every year. We may joke about cops and doughnuts, but this is no joking matter!
The FDA recently removed the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status from trans fat, 7 years after requiring companies to disclose trans fat on the nutrition label – except for one rather major loophole.
A product can currently be labeled "0g trans fat per serving" if it has less that o.5 g of trans fat in a serving. We all know serving sizes don’t always correlate to portions actually eaten, and people might be eating multiple products each day with that questionable status, so those fractions of grams most likely add up to a significant trans fat intake by many people.
When that law came down in 2006, many brands had to scramble to reformulate. Crackers, cookies, pastries and shortening all worked to figure out how to get the "0g trans fat" label on their packaging.
What’s the Trans Fat Substitute?
Partially hydrogenated oils – a.k.a. trans fatty acids a.k.a. trans fat – have been proven to be very harmful to humans. Whether hydrogenated oils haven’t been pegged as hard because they’re less dangerous or because they’ve been consumed more infrequently and therefore the subject of fewer studies, I’m not sure. But trans fats have made a name for themselves, and they’re on their way out.
Good news, right?
What is taking its place? Did processed foods companies return to the age-old saturated fats like lard, tallow, and butter or turn to shelf-stable traditional fats like palm shortening and coconut oil?
Of course not.
Many turned to another questionable process, one which I predict will see us saying, 30 years from now, "Can you believe we ate that stuff? Did you hear the FDA just classified it as a carcinogen and removed the GRAS status?"
It’s called interesterified fat, and the chemical process to create it is pretty intense:
First a liquid oil, usually a polyunsaturated fat like soybean, cottonseed or corn oil, all laden with their own issues from the get go, is hydrogenated. (More on why polyunsaturated fats aren’t where it’s at, plus add genetic modification in there while you’re reading.)
Hydrogenation is the process of making a liquid oil into a solid fat, in layman’s terms. If I channel my inner science geek, she’ll try to tell you a little bit more about how it works:
- The unsaturated oil molecules are bombarded with hydrogen atoms, which changes the arrangement of the hydrogen in the fat.
- The fat molecule can "line up" better, making the oil into a solid form. (Picture a ladder, almost.)
- There is still a sort of "hook" on the end of a partially hydrogenated fat molecule, and that’s what gives it the name "trans" fat. That part of the molecule is not double bonded and the hydrogen is moved transversely from where it belongs (I think that is right!).
- Fully hydrogenated oil has all double bonds, all the way down, and is very straight like a ladder. Its bonds are so saturated that the resulting fat is no longer even pliable enough to use easily in cooking – but it’s not technically called "trans fat" because it doesn’t have the little "trans" hook shape on the end.
- With both hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats, the process is man-made, done in a lab, so regardless of precisely how it’s done – since I may have twisted that information up royally! – the bottom line is that this is a fat, a "food" made in a science lab, not as it is found in nature.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this has a pretty similar beginning to trans fat production.
Next, fully hydrogenated oil is then put through another chemical process to move some triglycerides, specifically inserting a well-placed saturated fatty acid. Wikipedia explains it this way:
In vegetable polyunsaturated oils, the PUFA is commonly found at the middle position (sn2) on the glycerol. Stearic acid is not usually found at sn2 in vegetable oils used in the human diet.
Stearic acid comes mostly from animal fats and is derived from the word for "tallow" (i.e. beef fat), but it is also found in high amounts in cocoa butter and shea butter. In nature, there’s nothing wrong with stearic acid. But when scientists start moving parts around at the molecular level, it’s more than just following a recipe for good soup stock.
It makes me nervous.
Is Interesterified Fat Safe?
The interesting thing about interesterified fat is that there have been studies done that demonstrate its safety, so say the researchers. There seems to be one lonely study that every site demonizing interesterified fat cites, but it was one small study (n=30), not very well designed by the sounds of it (the fat profiles of the test groups were not equal), and funded by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, clearly a competitor to this new way of making a solid, shelf stable fat.
If you look at Mercola, Men’s Health, Dr. Weil, Consumer Reports, and Wise Geek, they all come down either unsure or negatively on interesterified fats, but each one cites the same study as the one thing that gives them pause.
The Wikipedia article cites a handful of studies that "prove" interesterified fats do not raise cholesterol or blood glucose levels. I put "prove" in quotation marks because the studies lasted about three weeks, not enough in my book to make me feel safe consuming something that was physically altered at the molecular level.
The FDA thought trans fats were "generally safe" for decades. They were wrong. What’s to say it won’t just happen again?
Interesterified fats are chemically-processed fats whose main purpose is to accomplish the same objective as trans fats, namely to prolong shelf-life. And since they are not trans fats per se, manufacturers that label products as “trans fat free” can legally do so. (source)
Some will say that I’m laughing in the face of science, that I’m ignoring perfectly justified studies, real research, that I’m skeptical no matter what science says, just because I stubbornly want to be.
And maybe I am. Maybe I am stubborn about it. But I became pretty stubborn about trans fat, too, once I did more reading and thought processing after I became a mom.
Like my husband said when he sent me the article about the GRAS status being removed: "Looks like you were right all along."
I’m much more willing to gamble on the side of caution and avoid something new simply because I don’t think we can possibly say that it’s safe, than I am to listen to a few studies, no matter how tightly they were designed and implemented, that claim "no harm done." The human body is far too complex to run a few tests and assume that we’ve covered all our bases.
How Do We Avoid Interesterified Fats?
If this news has you a little, well, terrified – don’t worry. The simple answer is "avoid processed foods."
You can look for the word "interesterified" on labels, but unfortunately it doesn’t always have to be there with that exact phrasing.
Decoy words for interesterified fats include “high stearate,” “stearic rich oils” or simply as “interesterified oils." (ibid.)
I totally didn’t know that one until today! In fact, because I know the word "stearic" has to do with beef, I probably saw that on many an ingredient label and thought, "Well, it’s not exactly a known quantity or obvious real food, but it is probably related to beef and probably not too far from the cow." Just because it didn’t have a processed word like "hydrogenated" or "interesterified" I let it slide. How wrong I was!!!
Be suspicious of pretty much anything that used to have trans fats – shortening, graham crackers, other crackers, cookies, pastries. That’s a pretty solid list of things you always knew you shouldn’t eat anyway, so not much has changed except a little more knowledge.
So thanks, FDA, for protecting the unsuspecting, uneducated public from the demons of trans fat. How long will it take before something else needs its GRAS removed?
Have you seen interesterified fats on nutrition labels yet? What’s your response to the FDA’s decision and the "new" fats coming into popularity?