Trans Fats - Golden quarters
When I was a kid in Wisconsin, in the middle of the last century, we would periodically pile into our Ford Fairlane and take a family excursion to Illinois to buy what was at the time considered precious gold. Of course, it wasn’t the kind of gold that comes from a goldmine that lured us, but another highly prized commodity, colored margarine! We had to go over the Illinois border to get it, because our state had banned the use of coloring in margarine, and the only oleo we could buy was a sickly white color, which in no way resembled the yellow butter it was supposed to replace.
Better than butter?
Although we liked the taste of real butter, we were told by the health experts of the day that it was bad for us, so we made the monthly pilgrimage to obtain its substitute. I can still remember thinking about how good it was to be avoiding the unhealthy butter and instead using the magical margarine on our toast and in our cooking. (I was destined to be health-conscious even then!)
Fast forward about 40 or 50 years and you will find that there is no longer any margarine in my refrigerator—colored or otherwise! This is because of the discovery of something that has become a common household word, namely trans fats, sometimes called TFA’s for Trans Fatty Acids.
Trans fats are a type of fat created during the hydrogenation of oils to make them into margarine and other vegetable shortenings that are solid at room temperature. The addition of hydrogen to the oil keeps it from turning rancid and gives it that texture that is so good for spreading on toast and for making piecrust.
Trans fats are bad fats!
The problem is that this kind of fat may be worse for you than saturated fat, since it can significantly lower your good cholesterol (HDL) and increase your bad cholesterol (LDL), while at the same time encouraging inflammation and the formation of blood clots. All of these factors mean that TFA's in your diet may increase your chances for developing cardio-vascular disease. There is also some research that suggests that TFA's may promote cancer, weaken the immune system, and speed up the aging process.
Ever since the dangers of TFA's hit the public consciousness, the food companies have done their best to limit or eliminate them from their products. However, there are still plenty of them out there in many baked products, restaurant foods and other prepared foods.
Skip the hydrogenated oils
Any item that you purchase that has “hydrogenated” oils will have trans fats in it, so check the labels. Don’t be fooled by “zero trans fats” claims, since some less scrupulous companies have simply lowered the serving size enough to meet the required level to be able to claim no TFA's.
From the frying pan into the fire?
A cynical person might wonder if removing TFA's from our food supply, means they are being replaced by something just as bad or worse. Rest assured that if some clever fellow in the last century figured out that by blowing hydrogen into peanut butter, he could make it creamier and give it a longer shelf life, some equally creative chemists are, even now, figuring out new ways to adulterate our food for fun and profit.
Eat real food
Perhaps the solution is to refuse to eat the processed foods and instead, choose fresh, whole foods that don’t contain a laundry list of ingredients that are unfamiliar to you.
The rest of the story
You will be happy to know that after a few years, our state joined the "vulgar herd" and allowed colored margarine to be sold in our grocery stores. After that, we only went to Illinois to visit relatives. The margarine industry exploded and we found ourselves with a smorgasbord of brands and varieties to choose from, many in shiny gold packages, as if to signify its intrinsic value.
When the news of the evils of unhealthy fat finally hit home, we tried not to think about the pounds and pounds of the stuff we had consumed over our lifetimes. You could say that it is a testament to the ability of our bodies to survive the unhealthy things we eat, that some of us “margarine kids” are still here to remember those long ago trips south of the border in search of gold.
Eat and be healthy with my warmest regards,