The Dangers of Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils
By Clair Dainard - Updated September 18, 2012
Americans are finally starting to accept that fats and oils are an important part of a healthy diet. As part of its sophisticated dietary tracking program, Woojabooty helps its users track their intake of healthy fat sources such as avocados, fatty fish, and flax seeds. Although many consumers now have a clearer view on the importance of dietary fat, there is still some misconception about vegetable oils, including soybean oils. These products may sound healthy (Hey- they have the word vegetable in them right?), but depending on the source you may be exposing yourself to a dietary culprit that is now believed to be one of the biggest risk factors for cardiovascular disease. When you use Woojabooty, you not only get up to date data on the health-promoting fats, but also insight into how to avoid these insidious dietary fat dangers.
Chemically speaking, fatty acids are long chains of carbon molecules with a carboxyl (acid) group at one end. Since a carbon atom can form four bonds with other molecules, when each carbon atom in the center chain is bound to two carbon and two hydrogen atoms, the fat is considered saturated. As a molecule, this chemical structure allows for saturated fats to be more solid at room temperature (think butter). On the other hand, if within a fatty acid chain one of the carbon atoms forms a double bond between carbons, the fat is considered unsaturated. If there is only one double bond within a chain, the fatty acid is considered monounsaturated while multiple double bonds are characteristic of polyunsaturated fats. Unsaturated fatty acids are more fluid at room temperature and are a large component of plant and vegetable oils[i].
Unsaturated fatty acids are predominantly considered beneficial to health but they do present some challenges in food preparation. Unsaturated fats are often not stable at high temperatures (such as those used in frying or baking) and are also more likely to go rancid or oxidize if exposed to air. In the early 20th century, food scientists began experimenting with artificially introducing hydrogen atoms to unsaturated fats to alter their chemical structure and increase their stability. This process, known as hydrogenation, was found to greatly increase the shelf-life of unsaturated fats and became widely used in processed foods such as margarine and shortening in the United States. Hydrogenated soybean, vegetable, and palm oils became common ingredients in packaged foods such as potato chips and crackers[ii].
With the introduction of hydrogenation, American consumers were able to enjoy an extended shelf-life now available in processed foods and baked goods. What they didn’t know, however, was that this perceived benefit was actually concealing a major health risk. Chemical hydrogenation creates a new, foreign type of fat called trans fat. This fat is found rarely in nature and is not a normal part of the human diet. It is now believed that trans fats are a major contributor to numerous chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular disease. Hydrogenated oils appear to be detrimental to cardiovascular health since consumption appears to simultaneously increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol while reducing HDL (“good”) cholesterol [iii]. Intake of dietary trans fat has also been connected to an increase in C-reactive protein levels. This acute-phase inflammatory protein is highly linked to cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes[iv]. In addition to the potential risks to heart health, intake of trans fats has been linked to neurological problems as well. A 2003 study in The Archives of Neurology established a connection between high intake of dietary trans and saturated fats and risk of Alzheimer’s disease[v].
It is clear that avoiding these fats in your diet is crucial to minimize your risk, but you cannot rely on food labels alone. In 2000, the FDA mandated that food labels reflect the amount of trans fat per serving for those foods made with hydrogenated oils. Unfortunately, a small loop-hole in FDA labeling laws indicate that trans fats at less than 0.5 grams per serving can be labeled as 0g. Since many food experts estimate the tolerable intake limit for trans fats at less than 2 grams per day (some even less than that), a few servings of your favorite snack food containing hydrogenated oils can easily put you over the limit without you knowing! Woojabooty users enjoy the unique benefit of tracking their intake of trans fats via the food tracker, making it easy to determine your intake as well as identify the possible hidden sources of hydrogenated oils and trans fats in your diet. Woojabooty gives you the control to monitor and change your diet so you can make healthy choices.
[i]Groff JL, Gropper SS, Hunt SM. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. West Publishing Company, New York, 1995.
[ii] Hill John W, Kolb Doris K (2007). Chemistry for changing times. Pearson / Prentice Hall
[iii] Trans Fats: Avoid this cholesterol double-wammy. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER).
[iv] Lopez-Garcia, Esther; S; M; M; R; S; W; H (March 1, 2005). "Consumption of Trans Fatty Acids Is Related to Plasma Biomarkers of Inflammation and Endothelial Dysfunction". The Journal of Nutrition 135 (3): 562–566.
[v] Morris MC, et al. Dietary fats and the risk of incident Alzheimer disease. Archives of Neurology. 2003 Feb;60(2):194-200.