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Know Your Ingredients: Partially Hydrogenated Oils

Posted May 21 2008 1:08pm

You are what you eat, as the saying goes. So if you put junk into your body, don’t expect too much out of your body. With that in mind, let’s talk about common ingredients in foods that line our supermarket shelves. After all, the more informed you are, the better choices you can make for your overall health.

Let’s start with a biggie - Partially hydrogenated oil. It’s in many, many processed foods, and you may have heard all the uproar related to it the last few years with the trans fat scare.

And scared you should be. Partially hydrogenated oils are formed when an oil (doesn’t matter what oil you start with) is bombarded with hydrogen. This hydrogen fills in the spaces in an unsaturated oil to make it more saturated. Making an oil more saturated can be useful because it becomes more solid, allowing for it to be used to make things like light, fluffy cakes and crackers.

Trans Fat MoleculeHowever this process of unnatural saturation has a side effect… it bends the fat molecule in a new way. This is known as a ‘trans’ molecule, which is different from the natural ‘cis’ molecule. Wikipedia has some good descriptions and diagrams if you’d like to learn the chemical aspect in more depth.

The bottom line is that our bodies can’t handle this trans fat molecule well, and accumulation of it over time contributes to heart disease, and probably other health ills that have yet to be discovered. Obviously, you’re better off to avoid this unholy creation altogether.

Therein lies the problem. Many foods contain trans fat because manufacturers still use partially hydrogenated oils. The government tried to help by mandating that trans fats be labeled in the ‘Nutrition Facts’ label of processed foods. However, they allowed a loophole. Any food that contains less than .5 grams of trans fat can round down and label it as 0 grams. Even half a gram isn’t a trivial amount, especially if you eat more than a single serving. Sometimes serving sizes are intentionally left smaller than they should be so that the manufacturer doesn’t have to list that 1 gram of trans fat. So you can easily continue to unknowingly consume this fake fat, even if you’re a good label watcher.

In order to avoid this fat you need to read the list of ingredients on the packaged foods you buy. If it says partially hydrogenated anything, run for the hills. Better yet, avoid processed foods as much as you can. There are plenty of other dangers lurking in there, but that’s for another post on another day.

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