A Trans Fat Primer
The first part of this book is devoted to explaining why it’s important to get the trans fat out of your diet. It is the background you need to help you put the issue into perspective as well as help you make informed decisions when making food choices. As you read this part of the book, think about the foods you eat today that are high in trans fat—those you keep in your kitchen as well as those you eat when you’re at a restaurant. Once you’re aware of where trans fat hides in your diet and why you need to get it out, the remainder of this book will help you accomplish that goal.
Understanding Trans Fat
For many years you had to know what you were looking for to find any clue that your favorite foods might contain trans fat. That’s because the government didn’t require food manufacturers to list trans fat on product nutrition labels, and so almost universally they did not list it.
The effect was that most of us paid no attention to how much trans fat we were eating even though partially hydrogenated oils—the main source of trans fat—were being used in 40 percent of the foods sold in supermarkets. But people are paying attention now.
Science has found serious health risks associated with eating partially hydrogenated oils and other sources of trans fat. Trans fat is dangerous because it raises blood levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, while also lowering levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol.
How bad is that? A large study that examined, among other things, links between diet and health—The Nurses Health Study—has shown that women who eat twice the average amount of trans fat (about 5 grams or 1 teaspoon per day) developed 62 percent more heart disease than the average. Other studies have provided preliminary evidence that trans fat causes general inflammation in the body, an emerging risk factor for coronary artery disease, heart failure, diabetes, and other conditions.
Health professionals are therefore advising us to severely limit or eliminate trans fat from our diets. For the first time new federal regulations are requiring food manufacturers to list the trans fat content of their products on food labels. In response to these new rules, many companies are reformulating their products to reduce or rid them of trans fat.
Let me be clear: Trans fats are very bad for you. They cause many health problems, and they contribute to obesity. You do need some fat, but trans fat is a bad fat that should be eliminated from your diet and replaced with good fats.
Trans fat won’t disappear overnight. It will be years before we see the end of partially hydrogenated oils in packaged and manufactured foods. It will be necessary for you to make some changes to cut trans fat out of your diet.
You need to understand some basics before you begin: what hydrogenated oils and other sources of trans fat are, where they come from, why they are used, and where they are found.
What Are Trans Fats?
Our bodies store fat so that it can be burned later for energy, the energy needed to fuel the work our bodies perform as they grow and develop. Fats, also called fatty acids, serve a variety of other functions, such as helping to transport fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K throughout the body. We need some fat to be healthy, but most of us get too much of the wrong kinds from the foods we eat.
There are three main forms of fat in our diets: monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and saturated fat. Each has a unique chemical configuration and functions differently in the body.
Most fats occur naturally in foods. Trans fat is a somewhat different case. Some trans fats occur naturally in dairy products and meats. Most, however, are man-made. Trans fat is created when vegetable oil is put through a process called hydrogenation. In this process, hydrogen gas is bubbled through liquid vegetable oil, causing a change in the chemical configuration of the oil and making it thicker in consistency.
Oil can be hydrogenated a little or a lot. Hydrogenate just a little, as in partially hydrogenated oils, and you get an oil substance with the consistency of soft margarine. More hydrogenation creates a more solid product, such as canned shortenings.
When food manufacturers fully hydrogenate oil, they create a product that no longer contains trans fat. But fully hydrogenated oils are very hard and waxlike. They have limited use in foods unless combined with other oils—such as liquid sunflower oil and soy oils—to create a softer consistency. On the other hand, partially hydrogenated oils—known as “plastic fats” in the food business—have special properties that make them invaluable to food manufacturers, especially in baking. Among other things, plastic fats help create flakier piecrusts and biscuits and extend the shelf lives of processed foods.
A Little Bit of Trans Fat History
The process of using hydrogen gas to convert liquid oil to solid fat was pioneered in Germany and England more than one hundred years ago, but it was Procter & Gamble that brought partially hydrogenated oils to the masses. It came in millions of cans labeled with the name Crisco.
A Comparison of the Chemical Configuration of Fats
A saturated fat has a chemical structure that looks like this:
Carbon-Carbon Single Bond
An unsaturated fat has a chemical structure that looks like this:
Carbon-Carbon Double Bond
A trans fat has a chemical structure that looks like this:
Hydrogen atoms are on opposite sides of the chain of carbon atoms at the carbon-carbon double bond.
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
As the twentieth century began, P&G needed to come up with new products. Electricity was spreading across the land, massively cutting demand for the firm’s candles. Meatpackers were cornering the market on lard, another of P&G’s main products. The company would be in major trouble if it didn’t come up with new innovations to sell to American households.
In 1907, a German chemist named E. C. Kayser wrote to company officials asking whether they would be interested in his discoveries in the field of hydrogenation. The company had recently made progress in research on processing cottonseed oil so that it could remain liquid in cold temperatures, but P&G researchers were having trouble creating a solid form of the oil—one that could compete with lard, butter, and other cooking products.
Kayser accepted the company’s invitation to the firm’s headquarters in Cincinnati and, according to company lore, showed up with a white block that he placed on the desk of P&G chief Cooper Procter.
“What’s that?” Procter asked.
“Cottonseed oil,” Kayser replied.
P&G quickly hired Kayser, and by 1911 the company had perfected the production of what would come to be known as Crisco, a creamy white shortening suitable for use in cakes and pastries and with properties similar to lard but less likely to become rancid. It had the added advantage of being cheaper than butter, and it could be produced and used in baked goods with consistent results.
The first advertisement for Crisco appeared in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1912, declaring it to be “an absolutely new product. A scientific discovery which will affect every kitchen in America.” And it did.
P&G established traveling “cooking schools” that hosted demonstrations nationwide to teach American housewives how to cook with Crisco. Free recipes and inexpensive cookbooks were distributed to housewives. By 1921, Crisco ads asked, “Why have a smoky kitchen?” and promised women they would be “out of the kitchen by noon!” In 1931, housewives across the country tuned in to a regular radio program called Mrs. Blake’s Radio Column. Twice a week the program featured a Sisters of the Skillet cooking segment that promoted the use of Crisco shortening.
Another Crisco advertisement from the early 1930s showed a motherly “Mrs. Paul” entering a distraught woman’s kitchen holding a can of Crisco; she was there to show the woman how to make “a light and digestible pie that will delight her husband’s boss when he comes to dinner.”
It didn’t take long for Crisco to revolutionize home baking by becoming the best-selling all-purpose household vegetable shortening in the United States.
Why Food Companies Love Trans Fat
Crisco and other partially hydrogenated oils helped alter the way homemakers baked and completely changed the American diet.
Partially hydrogenated oils came onto the food scene just as the country—indeed, the world—entered the era of mass production of consumer products. Automobiles, washing machines, sewing machines, refrigerators, and other consumer goods became more common as industrialization took hold. Hand in hand with the growing availability of time-saving appliances came changes in modern life as more households found their breadwinners rushing from home in the morning to go to factory jobs.
Convenience became a selling point for many products, including food. Widening use of partially hydrogenated oils meant that foods such as cakes, pies, cookies, and doughnuts could be made in factories and shipped to grocery stores. “Store-bought” cakes set the new standard for baking quality.
The food industry began widely adopting the use of partially hydrogenated oils. Cost was one factor. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils could take the place of—and cost less than—butter and lard in most foods. Better still, hydrogenated oils increased the shelf life of foods, because they went rancid much more slowly than butter and lard.
Hydrogenated oils are useful in other ways, too. They make crackers and cookies crisp, keep cakes moist, and add a good flavor to foods. They don’t break down as quickly as liquid oils, so fast-food companies and other restaurants can use them longer in deep-fat fryers for cooking French fries, fried pies, chicken nuggets, breaded fish, and other foods.
A century after trans fat was introduced into the American diet, fully 40 percent of the products sold in grocery stores contained it. Use of hydrogenated oil is so widespread in the food industry that removing it—or substantially lowering dependence on its use—presents a major challenge. Not only do substitutes for hydrogenated oils cost more, but they also taste different. Part of the challenge for the food industry in finding ways to remove trans fat is creating new recipes that closely match the familiar flavors and textures of popular foods.
In some cases, the food industry has succeeded. Just as Crisco ushered in the era of trans fat, the baking staple recently underwent another transformation as attention shifted to the dangers of trans fat. The shortening, which is now owned by J. M. Smucker Co., has been reformulated with a blend of sunflower, soy, and cottonseed oils to remove trans fat. The new version of the old staple is called “Crisco 0 Grams Trans Fat Shortening.”
But many of our favorite foods still contain trans fat. It’s up to you to find them and cut them out of your diet.
Excerpted from Get the Trans Fat Out by Suzanne Havala Hobbs, author of Vegetarian Cooking for Dummies. Copyright © 2006 by Suzanne Havala Hobbs. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.