Trans Fatty Acids: Perception vs. Science

I have to admit that spending more time running than reading books didn’t make me any smarter. But some of the few courses I took as a chemistry student did stick. They proved to be very helpful in trying to separate facts from fiction. Especially on what’s going to make you run faster or live healthier.

In one of those classes, one my favorite professors taught us that a.) the only advantage of being a biologist over a chemist, is that you can eat your experiments afterwards and b.) you shouldn’t just believe anything that you read about apparent ‘health risks’: you need to seek out the facts.

Conflicting information

We asked for some examples. He grabbed his lunch box and picked out a sandwich. A ham & cheese sandwich with butter on it, more precisely. Or margarine. Because what’s the difference anyway, right? It turns out there’s quite a distinction, especially if margarine is produced in a way that generates industrial trans fats.

What are trans fats? In this case, trans fats are monounsaturated fats, often proclaimed as good for human health in their own right, but which have been partially hydrogenated in order to change their structure (to make them suitable for including in margarine or other products). Trans fats have been proven by scientists to be extremely harmful. In fact, in the USA, trans fats are now being banned altogether.

Not all margarine is necessarily bad, because it can be created without trans fats: but it is always better, according to our Professor, to seek out natural fats such as palm oil, or butter.

Marketing strategy

Our professor explained that it all starts with the farmer. Imagine him having one field. Either he uses it to keep ten cows and to produce butter or he uses it to plant thousands of canola plants, which could be used to produce margarine. The smart farmer maybe goes for the canola, considering the current milk prices. And let’s face it, there’s no cleaning cow poop, which is always preferable.

Now here’s the thing. To turn fluid raw canola oil into margarine, you can’t just add a few ingredients, mix them up and put in the oven for 45 minutes like a cake. You’ll have to change the molecular structure of the oil, involving a load of chemical processes – this is where partial hydrogenation, and trans fats, come in. So it’s not like butter or palm oil, which is naturally semi-solid. Margarine then becomes semi-solid though partial hydrogenation, and the farmer’s lovely fields of canola have been turned into dangerous trans fats.

Is margarine so bad?

Was my professor exaggerating when he was saying that margarine is so bad? Well, I think that trans fats are a lot less dangerous than Little Boy and Fat Man, but still play a big role in the development of diseases linked to an unhealthy lifestyle. Let’s say what vitamins and minerals are in a healthy lifestyle, sugars and trans fatty acids are in an unhealthy lifestyle. And face it, why eat artificial trans fats, when there are plenty of natural products out there, like palm oil which is 100% free of trans fats? That makes more sense to me.