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Good fats, bad fats, trans fats, and alternative fats

Author’s note: Fat is a controversial topic, but let’s cut through the chatter and delve into fat facts. This is the first of a three-part series about fat.

Artificial trans fats (or trans-unsaturated fatty acids or trans fatty acids) date back to the early 1900s when German chemist Wilhelm Normann treated vegetable and fish oils with hydrogen gas to make them solid or semi-solid at room temperature.

Much cheaper than animal fats, partially hydrogenated oils became the foundation of processed and convenience foods.

While butter and beef tallow consumption dropped, consumption of margarine and other hydrogenated oil products like “shortening” soared through years following World War II.

As reported in Science Daily, in the 1960s diets high in saturated fat (studies on animal fats mainly) were linked to elevated “bad” LDL cholesterol and coronary heart disease, and dietary guidelines recommended restricting saturated fats across the board.

At the time, it was thought that since trans fat was made from vegetable oils, it was healthier. But, subsequent studies found that any amount of synthetically produced trans fat contributes to a higher risk for heart disease.

By the way, a small amount of trans fat is found naturally in certain meat and milk products, because it’s naturally produced in the stomachs of grazing animals like cows and sheep. It’s a minuscule percentage in an average person’s diet, and of course, those who avoid eating ruminants avoid it completely.

Read more about the ‘hydrogenation bonanza’ here.

 The trans fats/cheap food/obesity connection
Are trans fats responsible for the obesity epidemic? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), at least 2.8 million people die yearly from conditions directly related to being overweight or obese. Once associated with high-income countries, obesity is now prevalent in low-and middle-income countries.

Roland Sturm, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation and a professor of policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School says that this health crisis is not because we don’t exercise enough, or that quality food is too expensive — obesity cuts across socioeconomic status, race, and geography.

As reported by NBC News, researchers examined all available research for a study published in CA: Cancer Journal for Clinicians and concluded, “… it’s our food environment. That’s where the action is. And it’s not just that food is now cheap relative to income, it’s also that it’s so much more convenient.”

People around the globe dine on fast food, junk food, processed foods, and it’s a disaster.

One study showed tha after 15 years, those who ate at fast-food restaurants more than twice each week compared to less than once a week had gained an extra ten pounds and had a two-fold greater increase in insulin resistance, a risk factor for Type II diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease. One reason for the weight gain may be that a single meal from one of these restaurants often contains enough calories to satisfy a person’s caloric requirement for an entire day.

In the 1930s, Americans spent a quarter of their disposable income on food. Sturm’s research shows that share is now less than one-tenth. But even though we’re spending less, we’re eating more… calories, that is.

As reported by Pew Research, the average American consumed 2,481 calories daily in 2010, almost 25 percent more than in 1970, and nearly half of those calories come from just two food groups: flours and grains, and fats and oils.

Mass marketing of cheap food has made a mockery out of many culture’s traditional food practices. As reported in The Guardian, “We know very little about the foods that sit on our supermarket shelves, in boxes, cartons.”

Eating a diet full of highly processed foods contributes to obesity. As reported in the National Institutes of Health NIH Research Matters, “Ultraprocessed foods have ingredients common in industrial food manufacturing, such as trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, flavorings and emulsifiers.”

These foods are cheap and more convenient than making meals from whole foods, and they’re high in calories, salt, sugar, and fat.

Researchers tracked how much people ate on “ultraprocessed” (left) and “minimally processed” (right) diets that were matched for calories and nutrients. HALL ET AL./CELL METABOLISM Credit:

The NIH cited a compelling recent study: 20 healthy adults — 10 men and 10 women —stayed at the NIH Clinical Center for 28 straight days and were fed two different diets for two weeks: an ultra-processed diet or a minimally processed diet. For example, an ultra-processed breakfast might consist of a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon, while a minimally processed breakfast might be oatmeal with bananas, walnuts, and skim milk.

The participants could eat all they wanted of either diet — no restrictions. But, on the ultra-processed diet they ate faster, and they ate more — they ate a lot more. Five hundred calories per day more than on the minimally processed diet. And they gained two pounds in a month. That equates to about 24 pounds in a year.

But those on the minimally processed diet lost about the same amount of weight. Read more about the May, 2019 study here.

The American Heart Association writes that trans fats became popular because they’re easy to use, inexpensive to produce and last a long time. They give taste and texture to foods, and restaurants and fast food outlets love trans fats because the oil can be used many times in commercial flyers. But scientists found that rather than being “better” than animal fats, trans fats increased the risk for heart disease.

Now that science has definitively shown that there is zero amount of trans fat that is considered healthy, wouldn’t that mean that all countries should eliminate the use? A number of countries have already moved to restrict or ban trans fats, including Ecuador, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Britain and the U.S.

But many countries in Asia and Africa have no such restrictions. In India, they use vanaspati, a reheated palm oil that is very high in trans fats and linked to soaring rates of heart disease among South Asians.

Emphasizing that India’s heart disease epidemic increased due to dietary patterns, doctors urged people to avoid reusing any oil for frying food products as it increases the proportion of trans fats, a major source of heart diseases. Credit: Talengana Today.

As reported by Health Policy Watch (May, 2019), although 28 WHO member states, representing 31 percent of the global population, have moved to restrict or ban the use of health-harmful industrial trans fats (TFAs) in food products, two-thirds of the world’s population still exposed to risks from TFAs that kill approximately half a million people a year.

They quote Shauna Downs, Assistant Professor of Urban-Global Public Health at Rutgers University, who says, “Eliminating trans fats and replacing them with healthier alternatives is a complicated process for countries, because it not only involves changes in manufacturing processes but in securing local production of healthier oils, when agricultural and trade conditions may not be so favorable. If oils are imported then taxes and tariffs need to be examined to ensure that they do not favor the import of unhealthy products or discourage the import of healthier alternatives such as polyunsaturated fats.”

Cheap calories are mighty expensive
But people rely on cheap calories, and foods made with trans fats have been long the foundation of consumer’s diets, regardless of economic status. Fast and frozen foods, cakes, refrigerated dough, microwave popcorn, non-dairy creamers, baking mixes, frostings, margarine, and shortening are so damn cheap, but at what cost to health?

And since they all contain trans fat, what will manufactures use instead?

So, what about alternative fats? Replacements to trans fat include unsaturated or monounsaturated plant oils like canola, corn, soy and olive oil, and of course for home cooks, there are also saturated fats — butter, lard, tallow (beef fat).

And palm oil has replaced trans fat in most of the convenience foods above. It’s highly saturated and although some claim saturated fats are “natural” and “healthier” there is no evidence that diets high in saturated fat are “healthy.” More about saturated fat to come in an upcoming column. (Hint: it’s not just the fat, it’s the amount of some fats in your diet that makes it “healthy” or not.)

Trans Fats Should be Eliminated Worldwide by 2023, W.H.O. Says: Pakistani vendors selling fried sweets made with oil containing trans fatty acids. The World Health Organization has announced a plan to eliminate the use of trans fats around the world. Credit: Arshad Arbab/European Pressphoto Agency

Palm oil replaces trans fat
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there are two types of palm oil, one is ‘crude’, made from squeezing the fruit, and the other is from the kernel, made from crushing the stone in the middle of the fruit.

Similar to trans fat-laden shortenings, food manufacturers like palm oil — it’s cheap, shelf-stable, and has a creamy texture. It contains zero trans-fatty acids and contains an equal amount of saturated and unsaturated fats.

The Guardian reports that worldwide use of palm oil has exploded — on average each person consumes eight kilos of palm oil yearly! And why? Because it has replaced trans fat, because it fits the bill. Solid or semi-solid at room temperature, doesn’t get rancid sitting on the shelf (closed), and it’s…cheap. Es barato. 

Is palm oil any better for you than trans fats?
I think that palm oil is no better for you than trans fats, and isn’t that beside the point? Isn’t replacing trans fat with palm oil ignoring the problem of overconsumption of overly processed foods? Kind of like replacing cigarettes with vaping — swapping one addiction for another doesn’t make vaping a healthy alternative.

Next week I’ll explore the increase in the use of palm oil and its costs to human health and the environment. To follow will be an update on saturated fats followed by what research shows are “best” and “worst” fats. Oh! And watch for recipes.

Center for Science In The Public Interest. Artificial trans fat: a timeline.
Food Navigator Latam. PAHO develops action plan to remove trans-fatty acids from industrial food production.
Health Policy Watch. Five billion people still at risk from industrial trans fat exposure. Trans fats.
National Institutes of Health:
NIH Research Matters. Eating highly processed foods linked to weight gain.
NBC News. Cheap food blamed for America’s obesity crisis.
Pew Research Center. What’s on your table? How America’s diet has changed over the decades.
Science Daily.
Not all saturated fats are equal when it comes to heart health.
The Guardian. How the world got hooked on palm oil.
The Guardian. Inside the food industry: the surprising truth about what you eat.
The New York Times: Health. Trans fats should be eliminated worldwide by 2023, W.H.O. says.World Health Organization. 10 facts on obesity.
World Public Health Nutrition. The hydrogenation bomb.
Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist and a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She’s the Country Representative from Ecuador of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to her –