Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

What’s Going to Replace Trans Fat?

November 18th, 2013 · 26 Comments · Food for Thought

Are Hydrogenated Fats Any Safer or Healthier Than Partially Hydrogenated Oils?

No More Trans Fats - What Will Replace Vegetable Shortening Crisco

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?

IMG_7633 (475x356)

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?

Depends.

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:

  1. The unsaturated oil molecules are bombarded with hydrogen atoms, which changes the arrangement of the hydrogen in the fat.
  2. The fat molecule can "line up" better, making the oil into a solid form. (Picture a ladder, almost.)
  3. 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!).
  4. 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.
  5. 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?


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26 Comments so far ↓

  • Joanna

    Amen, Katie. I feel about these things the same way I feel about GMOs. Not enough info *for me* to feel comfortable consuming or serving to my family.

  • Amanda S

    This is why I wasn’t jumping up and down over GRAS removal for Transfats. What the government says or does regarding food matters nothing to me. I have zero faith in the government in this regard.

    Thankfully the solution is easy – no processed foods.

    Karen Reply:

    Me too.

  • caroline

    Dumb question – I was at the store the other day looking at some yogurt covered raisins – 0 trans fat but one of the ingredients was ‘partially hydrogenated palm oil’. So that’s trans fats right?

    I love yogurt covered raisins but have had a hard time finding some with ‘real’ ingredients. Have you ever tried to make them? I would think you could just dunk raisins in vanilla yogurt and let them harden in the fridge right?

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Not a dumb question at all Caroline! It is so confusing, and YES you are right. It seems like anything remotely related to “white chocolate” or hardened yogurt like that has trans fats.

    I’ve not done them at home, but you’d need something to harden up the yogurt – my guess is that melted coconut oil, whisked VERY quickly together with yogurt and then poured over some raisins and mixed fast, then hardened ind’ly on a cookie sheet would do it. The oil would try to solidify immediately upon hitting the cold yogurt, so that’s what you’d want to move so fast, maybe even leaving the yogurt at room temp for an hour to give yourself an advantage. Makes me want to try it… LMK if you do! :) Katie

    caroline Reply:

    I guess it would be hard for the yogurt to harden in the fridge since it is usually liquid at that temp. Duh. :)

    That trip was one of the times I wish i’d never found your blog – always thought 0 trans fat was ok until I came here and discovered I have to read the labels too. :)

  • KathleenK

    Guess this just take me right back to my simple label standards:
    1. If it has no list of ingredients (and isn’t a GMO) crop it is probably safe.
    2. If an average 1st grader can read it and pronounce it, it is probably safe.
    3. If my great grandmother, on her farm, with her average kitchen, with her 1 room schoolhouse education, could grow it and prepare it, and would recognize it as food, it is probably safe.

    My eyes glazed over at the scientific explanation of how to solidify a liquid fat. No thanks. My family and I aren’t guinea pigs. Let the FDA’s families test this.

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Got that right!

  • Kirstyn

    Thanks for this info! I’ve posted a link to it on our blog FB page. It’s so frustrating to finally get the public slightly educated on one bad food (and all of the different ways it hides on labels) just in time to have it pulled from the shelves and a new one introduced! Reminds me of the quote from Alice in Wonderland, “In this place it takes all the running you can do just to stay in the same place.” !!

  • Sharon

    I was wondering what the industry would try to pull. Thanks for the info.

    As far as safety testing for novel food-like substances, I’m not going to feel confident in anything until there’s at least a 50 year track record.

    Kathleen, that sounds a lot like my standards! My version of #3 is whether my most recent immigrant ancestor would have known what it was, and regarded it as safe to eat, when her family reached America in 1905.

  • Life Breath Present

    So glad you wrote this post. We generally avoid all processed foods, but to be aware of how many people know nothing about this kind of thing is discouraging. I’ll be posting a link to your article on my page because this is the kind of information that’s so important.

  • j

    please allow me to correct a little. this is an illustration and not perfect chemistry.
    un-saturated oils have double bonds between some parts of chain like this -c=c-c=c- every carbon (c) wants to “hold hands” with 4 other atoms. it is ok to “hold 2 hands” with some. (double bond) if a c has “3 hands” busy with other c’s it will hold 1 hydrogen (h). example above each c also has 1 h.

    adding hydrogen (hydrogenation) breaks the double bonds and adds h. example becomes -c-c-c-c- now every carbon “holds hands” with 2 hydrogen.

    this is a 3 d shape. think of a DNA strand in a helix or spiral.
    double bonds are very limber and twisty and the body has digestive systems that match up to them for digestion when they twist certain ways. they get digested sooner or just soon.

    saturated or fully hydrogenated fat has no twisty double bonds and digestion must match to 4c in a row each with 2 h. this is in 3d. 4c will line up like a c (corners of a square with a side missing) like animal fats (called cis) OR stretched out trans. think open square now move 1 wall into a zig zag. extra h’s dont let shape change between these.

    body can digest and use hydrogenated cis shape animal fats. body can not digest and use processed trans shape fats.

    interestification is a different process that modifies fats so they are more heat and shelf stable but to a different form than trans. but they are a different shape than natural animal fats and also have digestion problems. i dont remember the details of how it changes the fat.

    hope this helps.

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    That is fantastic, thank you! I still can’t picture it exactly, but that’s okay – you summarized the issue well at the end when you compared natural animal fats to these two man-made fats. What matters is that the body doesn’t recognize it. Love it! :) Katie

  • Lindsey

    I agree, these oils sound creepy. When I saw that article, I thought it sounded good for a split second, and then started to wonder what they would replace those trans fats with… nothing good. Too bad coconut oil and palm oil were given such a bad name. It really is just that simple… cook your own food and you’ll be ok.

  • CeAnne

    We are all better off just eating the fats that God gave us in natural proportions as part of a whole foods local plant based diet. Eat it as nature provided it in the amount that God provided it and our health will do best on that. If its not food don’t eat it!

  • Tamara p

    Oh…I agree with you! That stuff sounds like bad news! The billion dollar corporations trying to pull the wool over our eyes. It’s truly unbelievable how these corporations really don’t care about the masses, just the money…..and then they have the nerve to attack the small organic farms and bend the laws so they can get what they want. Unbelievable!

  • Kim

    I’ve tried not using Crisco, but tired of ruined, flat cookies and biscuits. Is there a substitute that works as well for these two things?

    Kirstyn Reply:

    This is our favorite recipe– it uses butter and makes incredibly flaky biscuits.

    http://modernvintagehousewives.blogspot.com/2013/09/biscuits-worth-effort-and-hamburger.html

    caroline Reply:

    I always thought the ‘height’ of a cookie was related to the amount of baking soda/baking powder. You may need to up the quantity of that ingredient a little along with the butter.

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Hey Kim,
    My friend was holding out on Crisco for pie crusts – butter and even lard weren’t good enough for her – but when I gave her some palm shortening to try, she was sold. So that might be a good 1-to-1 sub in your own fav recipes. What are you using now? I just recently learned that flat cookies are often because the fat is TOO soft. So you don’t want to leave butter out on the counter to soften all day, for example, but maybe just for an hour, or just cut it up and cream it with the sugar instead of softening at all. That might help too!
    :) Katie

    Laura Reply:

    Hello! The has nothing to do with the fat part of coookies, but makes the perfect looking cookies every time – freeze them for an hour before baking. They don’t have time to flatten!

  • jamila

    Hello, I just came across your article because I was researching trans fat. I was pleased to find out the FDA is finally taking steps to remove trans fat but I am still skeptical of if it is really going to be done. I just recently started to read the labels of the foods I buy and just recently became obsessed with not consuming trans fat. I was so unaware of how many foods have trans fats, it was scary to know that much of the foods that I was preparing for myself and my children had trans fat in it. I was really upset to find out Juicy juice and Minute Maid juices have trans fat, even the orange juice. Why is trans fat in beverages?…That is a question I would love to get an answer for. Also, I am trying hard to stay away from GMO foods and trans fat but it is hard when for so long I’ve been consuming them. Any tips on how I can make better choices of foods for my children and myself?…

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Jamila,
    In juice? Really? That’s actually a shock to me b/c most juice boasts “fat free.” Huh. Crazy.

    The simplest way – but not always easiest, time-wise – to avoid GMOs and trans fats is to cook for yourself using whole ingredients. But that can be tough! Here’s where I start, the top 10 big changes that aren’t too hard to do and save money too: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/11/28/overwhelmed-start-here/

    If you hit a few of those, then maybe you’ll have some grocery money for a few organic items (organic can’t be GMO). What you’re doing with the labels is the best strategy – you’ll learn what to avoid always (crackers are a good one to make yourself to avoid trans fat) and what brands are better than others when you do buy processed foods. I hope that gives you some direction – you’re making a great choice, just take baby steps and allow yourself much grace. It’s not all or nothing, so don’t give up just because you can’t do it ALL at once. :) Katie

    KJ Reply:

    Actually it’s not hard at all to replace Crisco and other type of shortening with whole ingredients. Just use butter!

    It’s not hard at all! I make all our christmas cookies and cakes, 7 types each year that I rotate, and I’m just a regular guy who rides motorcycles and fixes my own car! You can do it!

    You’ve been indoctrinated with the “need” to use shortening. That’s just an industrial waste product, as a cheap and very profitable replacement for butter. A pack of butter isn’t that expensive.

    Skip the Crisco made recipes with other recipes from around the world written in English, where they predominantly use butter. It’s a piece of cake!

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    KJ,
    Thank you – you’d enjoy our site, I’m sure. We’re all about butter here! Don’t worry, I do not touch shortening at all – this post was mostly querying what would replace trans fat in industrial products that we need to look out for. :) Katie

  • Christi

    You probably didn’t mention this so as not to confuse the issue, but there is actually a trans fat called CLA that is found in real food (e.g., grass-fed beef and butter) and is good for you. Case in point, Haagen-Dazs (some flavors) is made of all real food, but they have to label it as containing trans fat. (They do note that it is a naturally occurring trans fat.) It is only the trans fats that are manmade that are bad for you. Just thought I’d mention this in case anyone saw it on their Kerrygold package! :)

Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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