What Exactly Is 'Hydrogenated Fat'?

Merrick, 25th April 2001ce

Hydrogenated fat is widely used. We see it listed in the ingredients of margarine, biscuits, cakes, frozen meals, fried foods, sweets, crisps, fish fingers and many dairy products. It's popular with food manufacturers because it gives food structure and does not feel or taste oily.

What is it? Well, some kind of vegetable fat that's been treated somehow for some reason, probably nothing to worry about, right?

No, it's an artifical fat that's more unhealthy than any other.

The calorific value of fat is the same whatever form it comes in, but the kind of fat makes a huge difference to what it does in your body.

Saturated fat (most animal fats) are more unhealthy as they fuzz up the arteries, causing heart disease. Mono-unsaturates and polyunsaturates are the healthier ones.

'Saturated fat' means fat where the molecule cannot fit any more hydrogen atoms on.

'Mono-unsaturate' means the fat molecule has room for one more hydrogen atom, 'polyunsaturate' means it has room for more than one.

Hydrogenated fat isn't technically a saturated fat, so it looks OK on the label. But it is actually vegetable oil blasted with hydrogen so that it behaves like saturated fat.

The hydrogen makes the fat harder, which is why it sticks to your arteries. It's also why it's solid at room temperature (mono and polyunsaturated fats are usually oils). This solidity is desirable for food manufacturers as it adds substance and body to the product, whereas the healthier oils make things too squidgy and oily to the touch.

Many foods sold as 'low fat' are loaded with hydrogenated stuff, plus extra sugar (which you then make into fat).

Hydrogenation is a chemical process whereby ordinary vegetable oils are chemically altered to make them so hard that they won't melt in your hand. Basically a complete adulteration of the original (healthy) oil occurs. In the effort to make foods last longer in the supermarket, all traces of essential fatty acids are obliterated from processed foods, and hydrogenated fats take their place. A brief look at how hydrogenated oil is made will show that it cannot be conducive to health:

1 Vegetable oil is mixed thoroughly with fine particles of nickel or copper.

2. It is then heated to a very high temperature (about 200 degrees celsius) and held at that heat for 6 hours.

3. Meanwhile, hydrogen gas is pumped through the mixture at high pressure, and then the excited hydrogen atoms penetrate the vegetable oil molecules and chemically change them into 'transfats' ('trans fatty acids'). These are new, complex substances that are not found in nature, except at low levels in some animal fats.

4. The mixture is then cooled down to form tiny hard plastic-like beads. These hard beads are known as 'hydrogenated oil'.

The beads of hydrogenated oil are mixed with liquid vegetable oil and heated up again to a high temperature. when this mixture cools you have margarine. Margarine made like this can contain 'trans-fats' at levels up to 40%.

Many people thought that the great health debate between butter and margarine had been resolved long ago: butter had too much saturated fat and encouraged heart disease and obesity.

Margarine received a clean bill of health, because it was high in polyunsaturated fats and low in the heavier saturated fats. Nobody took much account of the fact that margarine is high in hydrogenated fat, the chemically transformed fat rich in unusual trans-fats.

A Department of Health report shows that the beginnings of heart disease can be found in those as young as seven. Research in the USA has shown that nowadays even 3-year old children have developed fatty deposits of plaque in their arteries at levels normally only found in much older people.

Just because some food product is 'vegetarian' or 'vegan' does not necessarily mean it is healthy. A lack of essential fatty acids to handle fat, and the eating of transfats, is more often the cause of obesity and heart disease than the eating of cholesterol-rich foods. After all, the body needs some cholesterol to produce a range of crucial hormones. And it's not just cholesterol that's needed. You need fats too. Like proteins, fats (lipids) are the building blocks of the body's essential structures. The membrane of every cell is a thin envelope of fat that encases and protects it.

Fatty acids strongly influence the 'fluidity' of the cell, the ability of the cell wall to allow red blood cells through with life-sustaining nutrients. The brain is 60% lipids.

Trans-fatty acids sit like cement in the body, clogging up arteries and impeding hormone production, and replacing good, necessary fats (Omega 3s and 6's) with something harmful. You can't do anything with transfatty acid except burn it off as calories; basically, its function is to poison your system and generate abnormal biochemistry.

Much of this article was plaigiarised from an article in an old copy of Vegan Views, and unfortunately no author is credited on the one page I have, so apologies to them.