About Trans Fats

Processing can change the structure of fat, making it more saturated. The process is called partial hydrogenation because missing hydrogen is added to fatty acid chains in their chemical makeup. As a result, oils become semisolid and more stable at room temperature. Usually hydrogenation is partial, making fat 5 to 60 percent saturated. The result: trans fatty acids.

The term "trans" simply describes the chemical makeup of a fatty acid. Beef, pork, lamb, butter, and milk naturally have small amounts of trans fatty acids. Naturally occurring trans fatty acids have different, potentially beneficial, health effects, from man-made trans fats. They don't have the same cholesterol-raising effects.

All margarines are made from vegetable oil. In stick margarine, the fatty acids are more hydrogenated, with a higher proportion of saturated fatty acids and trans fats, making it more firm than soft margarine sold in tubs or as "squeeze" margarine. Tub and squeeze margarines contain more water, and may have air whipped in so they may be lower in fat and calories. Butter-margarine blends may be even firmer than stick margarine; saturated fatty acids in butter help keep the product firm.

Why hydrogenate the oil? This process gives desirable qualities to food. For example, because hydrogenated fats are more stable, they extend the shelf life of foods such as crackers and margarine so they don't develop a rancid flavor and odor as quickly. Hydro-genating the oil in peanut butter gives a creamy consistency; oil stays mixed in and doesn't rise to the top. Stick margarine and shortening remain firm at room temperature when their oil is partially hydrogenated. In the fast-food industry, many foods are fried with these fats. The food industry is developing ways of hydrogenating fat without forming man-made trans fats.

Why the concern about trans fats? Trans fatty acids act like saturated fats, raising LDL blood cholesterol levels and potentially decreasing HDL cholesterol. That, in turn, may increase the risk for fatty deposits on blood vessel walls and heart attacks. Trans fatty acids supply about 2 to 3 percent of total calories

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