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Many of the random compounds created when oils are hydrogenated are so-called "trans fats" or, more correctly, trans-fatty acids. These are unnatural compounds, which are known to be detrimental to health. In order to understand why, we need to consider some of the chemistry involved. (not too much, I promise).
A natural, unsaturated fatty acid might look like the molecule below. It has several double-bonds between adjacent carbon atoms, which is what makes it "unsaturated". (saturated fats have no double bonds and all the "spaces" available are taken up by hydrogen atoms.
(These diagrams are simplified for easier understanding and were kindly provided by Andrew Kern to replace my rather poor previous effort!)
When this oil is hydrogenated, it is not possible to control where the hydrogen atoms are added to the structure. If both hydrogen atoms are added to the same side of the structure, it is called a "Cis" fat. Cis fats exist naturally and, because the hydrogen atoms are crowded on one side of the molecule, they bend, allowing other chemicals and enzymes to bind to them.
If, however one hydrogen atom adds to one side of the structure and the other atom to the other side, it creates trans fats, like the one below. Trans fats do not exist naturally, with a very few exceptions. Because the structure is uncrowded, they do not bend and so other molecules and enzymes find it more difficult to bind to them. The shape of the molecule is therefore vital to its function, much in the same way as the shape of a key is important for the operation of a lock.
In fact, it is the very fact that they are straight that allows trans fats to solidify at room temperature. Natural, cis fats are curved and so can't pack into a crystal formation at normal temperatures. Trans fats, on the other hand, are straight and CAN pack into a crystal formation, which allows them to solidify at room temperature.
The health implications of trans fats were recognised as early as 1958, when Dr Ancel Keys reported that he believed that hydrogenated vegetable oils with their trans fats components were responsible for the sudden and significant increase in ischaemic heart disease over the previous decade. The response was predictable - the oil manufacturers buried the research and began the false attack on animal fats.
More recently, University of Maryland researched Dr Mary Enig proved in 1978 that the increased cancer rates were directly associated with total fat intake and vegetable fat intake but not with consumption of animal fat. Dr Enig, who is a consultant clinician, specialising in nutrition has since spent the last 25 years warning of the dangers of trans fats and the relative safety of animal fats.
In fact, even the Harvard School of Public Health has issued a warning regarding the comsumption of margarines, snack foods and other foods containing hydrogenated oils (and their trans fats), in favour of butter.
Recognition of the dangers of trans fats
More recently, concern over the role of trans fats in disease has led a number of major food companies to remove these components from their products. this is probably a response to the recent FDA ruling that, as of 2006, all food labels must include the proportion of trans fats in addition to other fat content.
For now, a good guide is the amount of hydrogenated fat, and how high up the list of ingredients it is. The higher the listing, the more trans fat there is. If you want to be more specific, add up the listings of the other fats and take it away from the total fat content, the difference is usually all trans fats.
If this is too much, there are a few simple rules you can use to avoid trans fats. Firstly, avoid all products that list hydrogenated oil as an ingredient. Secondly, use only natural vegetable oil or animal-based fats (butter, ghee, lard, dripping) for cooking. If there is not a nutritional label on the food you buy, refer to the list below for products that are usually high in trans fats.
Foods that usually contain high levels of trans fats:
Pastries and cakes
French fries (unless fried in lard / dripping)
Cookies / biscuits
Naturally occurring trans fats have health benefits.
Very occasionally, trans fats do occur in nature. The most commonly known is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Unlike its synthetic counterparts, CLA is known to have many health benefits, however, these benefits are not in any way shared with the synthetic trans fats produced during hydrogenation.
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