A By-Product of Partial Hydrogenation of Vegetable Oil
What Are Trans-Fatty Acids?
Trans-fats are fatty acids with at
least one double carbon-to-carbon
bond in the hydrocarbon tail wherein
the proximal and distal carbons are
oriented on opposite sides of the
double bond. This is distinct from the
more common "cis" fatty acid. The
differences are illustrated below.
Below is a more realistic set of drawings of cis and trans (and saturated) fatty acids all containing
18 carbon atoms
Do Trans-Fats Cause Obesity?
No more than any other fat. The
significance of trans-fats lies in the
fact that they significantly increase risk
for heart disease.
How Much Trans-Fat Should People
Very little or none if possible.
What Foods Have Trans-Fats
Mostly partially hydrogenated vegetable
oils. Fully hydrogenated oils are simply
saturated fats without any double
bonds, but fats that are partially
hydrogenated do contain trans-fatty
acids. Trans-fats are an unavoidable
consequence of partial hydrogenation
because the process temporarily breaks
double bonds into single bonds and then
back into double bonds again and this
allows the sides to "spin" into the
lower-energy trans configuration.
The History of Trans-Fats and Crisco
It all starts with the cotton gin which as every school-child knows was invented by Elli Whitney and which made cotton a
cheap and usable textile. Because of the cotton gin, the growth of cotton production expanded from 750,000 bales in 1830
to 2.85 million bales in 1850 and horribly, as grew cotton, so did slavery in America. But that is a different tale than I
intend to tell here.
The point of the cotton gin to this discussion is thus: that with the increased production of cotton came the increased
production of cotton seed which was a by-product of ginning and which was considered a nuiscance and a waste-product.
In 1902 a German chemist named Wilhelm Normann patented a process for "hardening" or hydrogenating liquid plant oils
which produced a solid but creamy white lard-like fat that was shelf-stable for up to two years (far longer than the oils
from which the product was made). Normann's patent got noticed by the American firm of Proctor and Gamble which
bought the rights to the patent in 1909. Proctor and Gamble was smart: they knew that cotton seed was a virtually free
waste product that just happened to be filled with lots of liquid oil and armed with the Normann process that they now
owned they were able to convert cottonseed into a brand new product called "Crisco" which they produced for virtually
nothing and which they marketed by giving away cookbooks every one of whose recipes just happened to use Crisco. As
everyone now knows, Crisco became a household name and a staple of every pantry in America.
Margarine is older than Crisco and was originally a blend of animal and natural vegetable fats and skim milk along with an
emulsifier like lecithin, flavoring like butyric acid and coloring. In this form, margarine was a high fat product that was
cheaper than butter. Once hydrogenation was perfected however, most margarine came to be made with partially
hydrogenated vegetable oils and thus, came to contain trans-fatty acids. For many years, margarine was marketed as a
"healthy" alternative to butter because it contained no cholesterol (whereas butter does). This is ironic since margarine
contained large amounts of trans fats that were far more dangerous to health than the cholesterol contained in butter. In
fairness however it should be noted that butter and cow-meat does contain a small amount of a few bacterially-produced
trans-fats (this is because cows are "ruminants" whose guts contain bacteria that digest cellulose).
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