In a word: metabolic poisons. Consuming partially hydrogenated oils is like inhaling cigarette smoke. They will kill you — slowly, over time, but as surely as you breathe. And in the meantime, they will make you fat!
Originally published 1998
This article was Google-ranked #1 for 10 years running. Around the 15-year mark, it was #3 behind Wikipedia and an article published at the Mayo clinic. (I can live with that.)
Why Fats are Important
The first thing to understand about fats is that the essential fatty acids they contain are truly essential. They are the “active ingredient” in every bodily process you can name:
- brain cell function and nervous system activity
- hormones and intra-cellular messengers
- glandular function and immune system operation
- hemoglobin oxygen-transport system
- cell wall function:
- passing oxygen into the cell
- passing nutrients into the cell
- keeping foreign bodies out of the cell
- digestive-tract operation
- assimilating nutrients
- blocking out allergens
In short, the essential fatty acids (contained mostly in polyunsaturated oils) are the most important nutrients there are — more important than vitamins, minerals, or even proteins. Because, without them, there is no life. They are the substance and foundation of life energy.
What is Hydrogenation?
Hydrogenation is the process of heating an oil and passing hydrogen bubbles through it. The fatty acids in the oil then acquire some of the hydrogen, which makes it more dense. If you fully hydrogenate, you create a solid (a fat) out of the oil. But if you stop part way, you a semi-solid partially hydrogenated oil that has a consistency like butter, only it’s a lot cheaper.
Because of that consistency, and because it is cheap, it is a big favorite as a butter-substitute among “food” producers. It gives their products a richer flavor and texture, but doesn’t cost near as much as it would to add butter.
Until the 1970’s, food producers used coconut oil to get that buttery flavor and texture. The American obesity epidemic began when it was replaced with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil — most often soybean oil.
Learn more: Coconut Oil: Miracle Medicine and Diet Pill.
What’s Wrong with Hydrogenation?
Unlike butter or virgin coconut oil, hydrogenated oils contain high levels of trans fats. A trans fat is an otherwise normal fatty acid that has been “transmogrified”, by high-heat processing of a free oil. The fatty acids can be double-linked, cross-linked, bond-shifted, twisted, or messed up in a variety of other ways.
The problem with trans fats is that while the “business end” (the chemically active part) is messed up, the “anchor end” (the part that is attached to the cell wall) is unchanged. So they take up their position in the cell wall, like a guard on the fortress wall. But like a bad guard, they don’t do their job! They let foreign invaders pass unchallenged, and they stop supplies at the gates instead of letting them in.
In short, trans fats are poisons, just like arsenic or cyanide. They interfere with the metabolic processes of life by taking the place of a natural substance that performs a critical function. And that is the definition of a poison. Your body has no defense against them, because they never even existed in our two billion years of evolution — so we’ve never had the need or the opportunity to evolve a defense against them.
But the worst part is that in the last stages of oil processing (or “refining”), the oil is literally steam distilled to remove its odor. So it doesn’t smell. But a hydrogenated oil is much worse than rancid butter. So it it did smell, it would smell worse than the most rancid butter you’ve ever seen. (And that goes for all refined oils, not just the hydrogenated ones. It’s just that hydrogenated oils are everywhere in the American diet.) So the next time you see “partially hydrogenated oil” on a label, think “rancid butter”.
Partially Hydrogenated Oils Make You Fat!
Partially hydrogenated oils will not only kill you in the long term by producing diseases like multiple sclerosis and allergies that lead to arthritis, but in the meantime they will make you fat! (See Healing Multiple Sclerosis.)
You Eat More
It’s not like you have any choice in the matter. Remember that the essential fatty acids are vital to every metabolic function in your body. You will get the quantity of essential fatty acids that you need to sustain life, no matter what. You will not stop being hungry until you do.
If you are consuming lots of saturated fats, you really have no choice but to become fat, because saturated fats contain only small quantities of the polyunsaturated fats that contain the essential fatty acids you need. The key to being thin, then, is to consume foods containing large amounts of polyunsaturated oils. (Those foods include fish, olives, nuts, and egg yolks.) Over the long term, those foods remove your sense of hunger.
The difference between a “fat” and an “oil” is temperature. A “fat” is a lipid that is solid at room temperature. An “oil” is one that is liquid at room temperature. Both are lipids (or “oil/fat”). Change the temperature, and you can convert an oil into a fat, or vice versa.
Partially hydrogenated oils make you gain weight the same way that saturated fats do — by making you consume even more fat to get the the essential fatty acids you need. But partially hydrogenated fats are even worse. Not only do they produce disease over the long term, but they interfere with the body’s ability to ingest and utilize the good fats!
Picture it like this. The trans fats are now the guards along the watchtower. The essential fatty acids (the support troops) are waiting outside to get into the fort (the cell), so they can be distributed along the watchtower (the cell wall). But the guards won’t let them in! So they have to find someplace to stay in town. Over time, more and more troops are finding lodging in town. So new houses (fat cells) have to built to keep them in. The town grows more and more swelled with troops (fat), and it gets bigger and bigger (fatter). It’s not a pretty picture at all, when you realize that the town is your belly, buns, face, and neck.
Your Metabolism Slows
Worse, most partially hydrogenated oil is partially hydrogenated soybean oil. That’s a problem, because soybean oil depresses the thyroid — which lowers your energy levels, makes you feel less like exercising, and generally makes you fatter!
Of course, soybeans have been used for centuries in the Orient — but mostly as the basis for soy sauce and tofu. Asians didn’t have soy milk, soy burgers, soy this and soy that. Most of all, they never used concentrated essence of soybean, in the form of soybean oil. And they didn’t hydrogenate it, and they didn’t use it in everything.
Walking down supermarket aisles in America, you find product after product with partially hydrogenated oil — often in products you would never expect. But why not? After all, it’s cheaper than butter. And it’s not illegal. Yet. When you eat out, restaurant breads and fried foods are loaded with stuff.
As a result, Americans are consuming soybean oil — partially hydrogenated soybean oil — in virtually everything they eat. It’s no wonder that America is experiencing epidemic levels of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer.
When you start reading food labels, it is astonishing how many products you will find that contain partially hydrogenated oils. In the chips aisle, there are maybe two brands that don’t: Lay’s Classic Potato Chips (not their other brands), and Laura Scudder’s chips. Most every other package on the shelf does.
Then there are the cookies and crackers. Most every single one does. About the only cookie that doesn’t is Paul Neuman’s fig newtons. Among peanut butters, the all-natural brands (Adams and Laura Scudder’s) don’t. All the rest seem to.
Even some items on the “health food” shelf, like Tigers Milk bars, contain partially hydrogenated oils. Can you imagine that?? A product marketed as a “health food” that contains partially hydrogenated oils? If they want to market it as a candy bar, fine. Caveat emptor. But to market it as a health food calls for a class action lawsuit on the basis of false advertising.
The more labels you read, the more astonished you will be at the variety and number of places that this insidious little killer shows up. Do read the labels. Do recoil in disgust, and do throw the product back on the shelf — or throw it on the floor, where it belongs.
And it’s not just partially hydrogenated oils, anymore…
When I first wrote this article in 1998, I asked myself, “What’s going to happen when consumers begin to become aware of the dangers of partially hydrogenated oils? Are manufacturers going to stop using it? I figured that the answer, unfortunately, would be “No”. They would probably just give it a new name. Well, it appears that the worst may have come to pass. Alert readers Robin Jutras, Gerard Lally, and one other (whose name I forgot, apologies) clued me in to the fact that manufacturers are now using mono- and di-glycerides — which are also hydrogenated oil products.
Deep-Fried Foods: The Ultimate Killer
Fortunately, this information is beginning to penetrate the public consciousness. Recently, a news special covered the subject. The reporter got some of the details wrong, but the general message was right on the money. And the one surprising tidbit of information in the report was the fact that most of the deep-fried foods served in fast food joints are fried in partially hydrogenated oils!
Now, deep frying all by itself is pretty bad. After all, you are applying a lot of heat. But if that heat is applied to a saturated fat, there is a limit to how much harm it can do. A saturated fat doesn’t have a “business end”. There is no part of it that is chemically active. It’s inert. Your body can burn it for fuel, but it can’t use it to carry out any of your metabolic processes.
But because a saturated fat is inert, it can’t be hurt much by heat. It’s not all that good for you, but it’s not terrible either. So if you’re going to fry, fry in a fully saturated fat like lard, or coconut oil. Or, use butter, which consists mostly of short-chain saturated fats that are easily burned for fuel, plus conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which improves health (Bruce Fife, Detox, 68). And butter tastes great. It’s so good, in fact, that you don’t even need to use very much to get a lot of flavor. So at home you can fry with butter to get gourmet-quality food that is also healthy.
Even better, you could fry with coconut oil — which consists of medium chain fatty acids that contain 2/3’s the calories of long-chain saturated fats. They’re also metabolized differently, so they’re burned for energy instead of being stored as fat. And if that’s not enough, 50% of coconut oil consists of lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that’s anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungus, and anti-yeast. (For more information, see Coconut Oil: Miracle Medicine and Diet Pill.)
For commercial deep frying, though, butter is prohibitively expensive. Things were better when foods were fried in beef tallow and coconut oil, because they had a lot of flavor and the saturated fats aren’t harmed by the heat. But all that saturated fat sounds bad, so restaurants switched to partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. One “healthy” Mexican restaurant even advertised that they fried in vegetable oil. That would be somewhat better than partially hydrogenated oil — assuming that they weren’t using partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in the the first place — but subjecting the unsaturated fatty acids contained in a vegetable oil to the high heat of a deep frying vat is deadly, especially when the oil is used and reused all day long. The result would be the same kind of trans fats that you get in the hydrogenation process!
But the absolute worst commercial frying is done by the fast-food chains, who almost uniformly do their deep frying in cheap, deadly partially hydrogenated oil. Any fats that escaped being transmogrified in the hydrogenation process are now subjected to the deep frying process. It’s a miracle that any of the unsaturated fats escape being transmogrified, if any of them do.
What You Can Do
For starters, read food labels and avoid anything that contains the words “hydrogenated”. That means partially hydrogenated oils, hydrogenated oils, or anything of that kind (and mono-diglycerides, as well).
In 2006, a new FDA regulation takes effect that requires manufacturers to list the amount of trans fats on their product labels. Much as I would like to tell you that you can simply look for “0% trans fats” on the label, it would be useless for you to do so. The FDA wanted to put the words, “Warning: Trans fats may be dangerous to your health” on the labels — the same warning that first appeared on cigarettes — but the industry wouldn’t let them. And the way the labeling law works, the product can contain a significant percentage of trans fat, and still claim “0%”. Simply put, the labeling law is nearly useless. For more information, see What’s Wrong with Trans Fat Labels?
When eating out, avoid deep-fried foods at all costs, and pretend you’re allergic to wheat. (You probably are! Something like 50% of the population is. See What’s Wrong with Wheat?) And when you avoid wheat you stay away from both partially hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup — another deadly ingredient in the American food supply that is rarely used in other countries — except where American corporations are involved.
If you follow those steps, you will do a good job of protecting yourself. But there is a simple thing you can do to help protect others, as well:
When you see a food that contains partially hydrogenated oils (especially if it claims to be healthy), put it back on the shelf upside down and backwards. (Sometimes it’s impossible to put things back upside down, so at least put them on the shelf backwards.)
To find out why this is an effective boycott strategy, see How to Carry Out an Effective Consumer Boycott.
The Legal Outlook
With any luck, the first lawsuits against “food” producers will begin in the next 10-20 years. The scientific knowledge has been available since the early 1990’s, at least, so there is no doubt they are fully aware of what they are doing. They have been ignoring the health effects for the sake of profit. Such behavior is both unethical and immoral. With luck, some day it will be illegal, as well.
When I originally wrote this article in 1998, I feared that as soon as the public became educated as to its danger, corporations would simply change the name of the substance or find something equally dangerous to replace it with. Fortunately, the FDA required labeling of trans fats, rather than partially hydrogenated oils. That forestalled the inevitable name change. But corporations have indeed found another process — one that may or may not be safer. To find out more, read What’s Wrong with Interesterified Oils?
Epilog, 2009: Food Industry Sneaks Trans Fats Back In
Once the FDA started requiring trans fats to be listed on the label, I thought that we were finally home free. Unfortunately, it turns out that the food industry has other options. Mono- and Di-Glycerides are designated as “emulsifiers” rather than fats, so the trans fats they contain “don’t count”. (Until you ingest them.)
The Bigger Picture
As described in What’s Wrong with American Foods?, there is more than one thing wrong with the American food supply. It is a sad fact that American corporations put profit above all other considerations — above morality, above truth, above your health. They don’t regulate themselves, they’re not held in check by government, and the fiction that they are regulated by “the market” is, quite simply, a lie. That problem, and the only possible solution, is described more fully in What’s Wrong with American Corporations?. It’s a problem we must solve, for the sake of our children’s health, if for no other reason.
Other TreeLight articles:
- For observable effects: What’s Wrong with American Foods? (Obesity & Disease)
- For a slightly deeper look into the science of trans fats, see: Trans Fats: Metabolic Poisons
- For more insight into the health benefits of coconut oil, see: Coconut Oil: Miracle Medicine and Diet Pill
- For more on the subject of “food” producers, see Killing for Profit.
- For more information on what can you do, see Boycott Hydrogenation!
- For a one-page summary of things you should know, see Fat Facts.
- For more information on Essential Fatty Acids and the role they play in maintaining health, see Oils and Essential Fatty Acids.
- For more on gluten-related problems, see What’s Wrong with Wheat?
- For the problem of greed and corporate influence on government, see What’s Wrong with American Corporations?
- For a different take on MS, see Healing Multiple Sclerosis.
- The three most important books to read on this subject are:
- Fats That Can Save Your Life, by Robert Erdmann, PhD.
- Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, by Udo Erasmus.
(and Udo’s web site at https://www.udoerasmus.com)
- Flax Oil as a True Aid Against Arthritis, Heart Infarction, Cancer, and Other Diseases, by Dr. Johanna Budwig
- Hydrogenated and Partially Hydrogenated Oils nicely summarizes the science of trans fats.
Sells trans fat free cooking oils to restaurants and retail
Describes the dangers of mono-diglycerides — another hydrogenated oil.
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