In-GREED-ients: Do You Know What Hydrogenated Oil Is?

February 15th, 2010

Hydrogenated oil is an ingredient in an overwhelming number of foods, and despite the fact that it’s a serious health risk, most people don’t know what it is or that it even exists.

David Burton, a cardiac nurse, was shocked when he learned that hydrogenated oil is trans fat and that it’s a major risk for heart disease. As a nurse who treats patients suffering from heart disease, he was disappointed and frustrated by the fact that his training didn’t provide him with this information and that his fellow nurses and doctors weren’t aware of it either. Most unsettling was the realization that he was feeding this dangerous ingredient to his two year old daughter. He responded by making an informative documentary about trans fat that everyone should see.

Hydrogenated Oil is Highly Processed, Unnatural, and Unhealthy

When asked what hydrogenated oil is, most people have no idea. They tend to make the obvious connection that it’s some type of oil, but don’t really know if it’s good or bad, or even if it’s meant for human consumption. Some people think it’s a type of motor oil.

Hydrogenation is a process by which hydrogen atoms are forcefully added to a polyunsaturated oil, often soybean oil, cottonseed oil, or canola oil, through a reaction that typically involves very high temperature and pressure. This gives the oil the characteristics of a saturated fat that’s solid at room temperature. The product of this process is called hydrogenated oil, but is more commonly referred to as trans fat. Because hydrogenation increases the stability of inexpensive polyunsaturated vegetable oils, the resulting hydrogenated oil increases the shelf life of the many processed foods that contain it while also decreasing the cost of production. As such, it’s a tremendous advantage for food manufacturers.

To begin the hydrogenation process, chemical solvents are used to extract oil from plants. The oil is then bleached, deodorized, and pressurized in a tank that’s heated to temperatures above 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Because polyunsaturated fatty acids are naturally unstable, this processing causes them to become oxidized which results in the production of free radicals that can cause cellular damage when consumed. Metal catalysts, sometimes including potentially dangerous heavy metals such as aluminum, nickel, or cobalt, are then added along with hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen bonds with polyunsaturated fatty acid molecules in the oil which transforms them into trans fatty acids. Although the resulting fatty acids are similar enough to a saturated fatty acid to be used as such by the body, the unnatural arrangement of the forced hydrogen bonds is dissimilar enough to cause malfunction.

In 1911, Crisco became the first available food product to contain hydrogenated oil. It wasn’t long before hydrogenated oil was incorporated into many other foods as well, and this increase in use has been consistent with the dramatic rise in the prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease that’s occurred throughout the past century.

Hydrogenated Oil and Heart Disease

The trans fatty acids that exist in hydrogenated oil are known to promote inflammation throughout the body and significantly increase the risk of heart disease. Even more alarming is that it only takes a small amount. According to Meir Stampfer MD, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, just a couple grams of trans fat per day can substantially increase the risk of heart disease. Also unsettling is the Harvard School of Public Health’s estimate that trans fat causes about 50,000 premature deaths per year.

According to Ohio Councilman Kevin Conwell, in the city of Cleveland during the year 2007, there were 132 deaths caused by homicide and 200 deaths caused by heart attacks. Conwell points out that people are alarmed by the high rate homicide but that the number of deaths caused by heart attacks goes unnoticed because they’re not as violent in nature. In response, he aptly says that “we’re digging our own graves with our teeth.” I couldn’t agree more.

Another concern is the cost of treatment. The average case of a call to 911 for chest pain involves an ambulance, a paramedic, the use of oxygen, intravenous fluids, and drugs, consultation with an emergency room nurse and doctor, a private hospital room, consultation with a cardiac nurse and cardiologist, blood tests, an echocardiogram, and a stress test. If the tests indicate that a heart attack didn’t occur, the cost is about $10,000. If it turns out that a heart attack did occur, the typical next step is stent or bypass surgery and the total cost of treatment increases to about $40,000. Heart disease kills about 870,000 Americans each year which is more than twenty times the number of Americans who die in car crashes and almost ten times the number of American soldiers that have died in all wars combined. According to the American Heart Association, there were about 1,255,000 heart attacks in the year 2006.1 Based in this, is it any wonder why we have a health care crisis?

Hydrogenated Oil and Type 2 Diabetes

As most people know, type 2 diabetes results from an impaired ability to produce the hormone insulin which keeps blood sugar levels regulated by transporting it into cells. Trans fat is known to promote insulin resistance which is a condition in which cells become resistant to insulin. This puts a burden on the pancreas by requiring a larger than normal amount of insulin to be produced, and over time, can impair the ability of the pancreas to produce it. As such, unresolved insulin resistance often leads to type 2 diabetes.

24 million Americans suffer from type 2 diabetes, and it’s estimated that anyone born after the year 2000 will have a 1 in 3 chance of developing it. That’s truly frightening, especially for such a preventable disease. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure and adult blindness, and in the year 2004, was the cause of more than 71,000 lower limb amputations. According to Meir Stampfer, if everyone who’s overweight reduced their body weight to the point of having a body mass index of 21 or 22, 75% of diabetes would be eliminated. Although body mass index is a flawed measure of body weight, especially for people who are muscular, this is a shocking indication of how important our daily lifestyle choices are.

Another important consideration that’s not mentioned in the documentary is that diabetes is often associated with heart disease. The elevated blood sugar levels that are characteristic of diabetes can cause the artery damage and inflammation that leads to it.2 As such, the fact that trans fat is a risk factor for diabetes makes its association with heart disease more prominent.

Like heart disease, treatment for diabetes can be costly. Each year, about 175 billion dollars is spent on treatment for type 2 diabetes which is yet another indication of how flawed our food system is and how people’s unwillingness to take responsibility for their health has provoked misguided health care reform.

Why You Can’t Trust Food Labels

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was established to protect public health, but what they seem to be doing much more of is protecting corporate profits. The controversial approval of the deadly painkiller Vioxx has provided ample justification for reevaluating our trust in the FDA, as has their equally controversial approval of the artificial sweetener aspartame. Unfortunately, there isn’t much reason to believe that we can rely on the FDA to protect us from trans fat and the hydrogenated oil that it originates from.

While the FDA now requires that trans fat content be listed on food labels, they also allow food manufacturers to boldly state on labels that their products contain 0 grams of trans fat as long as the actual content is below 0.5 grams per serving. Since when is 0 equal to 0.49? This allows food manufacturers to use trans fat in their products while fooling consumers into believing that they’re healthfully avoiding it. This is just one of many deceptive food labeling practices and is compounded by the small serving sizes that food manufacturers often use. Since it only takes a couple of grams of trans fat to potentially cause problems, this is obviously a serious concern.

The makers of the InGREEDients documentary visited the University of Maryland to have the actual trans fat content of some popular food measured. This included KFC chicken, french fries from Wendy’s, and Promise margarine, all of which are claimed to contain 0 grams of trans fat. Despite the claims, each of these foods did contain trans fat, and Promise margarine came very close to the FDA’s labeling limit with 0.46 grams of trans fat per serving. Although the KFC chicken was fried, it’s also worth noting that their supposedly healthy grilled chicken also contains trans fat along with many other undesirable and surprising ingredients.

When David Burton visited with students in an advanced health class who were working on a project related to trans fat, he found that every kid was able to identify a food containing hydrogenated oil that they previously thought was healthy. Although it’s sad to see a kid’s trust in human nature be violated like this, it’s important to their future that they understand how to make healthy food choices, and it’s also important that this type of awareness continues to reach children and adults alike.

How to Avoid Trans Fat

By now, it should be obvious that you can’t rely on a manufacturer’s claim that their product contains 0 grams of trans fat. However, you can fortunately identify trans fat in a product’s list of ingredients by looking for any type of oil that’s fully or partially hydrogenated. Other ingredients to look out for are mono and diglycerides which are used as food emulsifiers and are likely to contain trans fatty acids.

It’s also important to realize that much of the food served at restaurants contains trans fat which is one of many reasons to limit how often you eat out or to only eat at places that you trust. Although it’s now illegal for restaurants in California and New York City to cook with trans fat, it may still be possible for their dressings and preprocessed foods to contain hydrogenated oils.

The easiest and healthiest way to avoid trans fat is to eat natural whole foods like meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. As celebrity chef Prudence Sloane says in the documentary, the best way to read labels while grocery shopping is to choose foods that don’t have them. Not only will this help you avoid the risks associated with trans fat, but it will also help to improve other aspects of your health as well. This is especially the case since the foods that contain trans fat also tend to be high in sugar and refined carbohydrates which are each associated with the many of today’s most common health complaints.

One of the experts featured in the documentary is Dr. Valentin Fuster, the Director of Cardiology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center and the former President of the American Heart Association. Perhaps his most important message is that although most people are already aware of the risk factors, they simply aren’t willing to take responsibility and make their health a priority. Although the shortcomings of the FDA and the deceptive practices of the food industry make this harder to do, these obstacles are irrelevant for anyone who fails to truly recognize and appreciate the importance of their health.

For more information, I highly recommend watching the InGREEDients documentary. If you’re lacking motivation to improve your eating habits, the disgusting pictures of diabetes induced ulcerations alone may very well give you the push you need.

[1. American Heart Association. "Heart Attack and Angina Statistics." Cited 2010 February 13.]
[2. Smith J. "$29 Billion Reasons to Lie About Cholesterol." 2009.]

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