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What Exactly Does it Mean When Foods are Hydrogenated, and What Risks Can it Pose?

Hydrogenation is a chemical reaction -- widely used in the processing of cooking oils and fats -- that turns unsaturated fatty acids into saturated ones. Technically speaking, during this process unsaturated bonds between carbon atoms are reduced by attaching a hydrogen atom to each carbon. Simply speaking, hydrogenation is a process in which hydrogen atoms are added to vegetable oils.

Aside from margarine and vegetable shortening, partially hydrogenated oils are commonly found in crackers, cookies, baked goods, salad dressings, bread and more.

When the process is not carried out completely (which is common in industry) the ending product is described as being "partially hydrogenated."

According to Udo Erasmus, author of "Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill" "So many different compounds can be made during partial hydrogenation that they stagger the imagination. Scientists have barely scratched the surface of studying changes induced in fats and oils by partial hydrogenation."

Why are Foods Hydrogenated?

The French chemist Paul Sabatier discovered the hydrogenation process back in 1897. However, it wasn't until W. Normann, an Englishman, received a patent in 1903 for the hydrogenation of liquid oils using hydrogen gas that the process became part of industry worldwide.

When a food is hydrogenated, its molecular shape changes, making it more solid and rigid. An oil, for instance, that is hydrogenated will become solid, even at room temperature (such as hard margarine or shortening).

There are two major reasons why foods are hydrogenated, and they both boil down to dollars and cents:

  • It increases the shelf life of foods.

  • It increases flavor stability in foods.

Food manufacturers, therefore, love to use hydrogenated oils and fats because their foods stay fresh and good-tasting much longer than any natural food ever could.

The Big Problem

"Hydrogenation, which is used to turn oils into margarine, shortening, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, produces trans-fatty acids, which are twisted molecules. Twisted, their shape changes, and they lose their health benefits and acquire toxicity instead," says Erasmus.

The creation of trans fats is the major, and until recently overlooked, health risk of eating hydrogenated foods. In fact, major may be an understatement.

So toxic are these fats that the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine said that trans fats shouldn't be consumed at all. The Food and Drug Administration says that intake should be as low as possible.

Yet, unknowingly, some Americans eat 30 to 40 grams of trans fat daily.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, trans fats:

  • Double the risk of heart attack

  • Are responsible for the deaths of 30,000 Americans every year

  • Increase the risk of diabetes

Other research has shown that trans fats:

  • Raise your body's level of bad cholesterol (LDL) while lowering the good cholesterol (HDL)

    As of January 1, 2006, you can now find out if trans fats are in your food by reading the nutrition label. This is the first time in history trans fats have been required on the labels.

  • Increase triglycerides and inflammation

  • Interfere with vision in children

  • Hinder liver detoxification

  • Correlate with increased prostate and breast cancers

  • Impede insulin function

  • Interfere with reproduction in animals

Trans fats are found in a wide range of processed foods from the obvious (fried foods, margarine, baked goods, vegetable shortening) to the unexpected (bread, cookies, snack crackers, salad dressings, granola bars, cereals, frozen dinners and much, much more).

In fact, trans fats can be found in 40 percent of all processed foods in supermarkets today.

The Good News

As of January 1, 2006, new FDA regulations require food manufacturers to list trans fats on food nutrition labels (directly under the line for saturated fat). So, as a consumer, you can now avoid trans fats much more easily, just by reading nutrition labels. If you also read ingredient lists, terms to watch out for include anything that says hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, along with vegetable shortening or margarine, which may also be hydrogenated.

Recommended Reading

Trans Fat's Strong Link to Cancer, Diabetes & Heart Disease, and How to Avoid It

All the Health Risks of Processed Foods -- In Just a Few Quick, Convenient Bites


Trans Fats: The Science and the Risks

Hydrogenation and Margarine

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