You know trans fats are bad for you. High consumption of trans-fatty acids raises cholesterol levels and increases the risk of heart attacks, especially among women.
"A 2 percent absolute increase in energy intake from trans fat has been associated with a 23 percent increase in cardiovascular risk," note researchers from Kansas State University.
But did you know how these diabolical fats are manufactured to make them so dangerous?
Toxic Trans Fats
To understand the toxic potential of trans-fatty acids, you have to know how they affect the body's use of essential fatty-acids (EFAs). EFAs have a chemical structure that is polyunsaturated. Technically, this means that each molecule of an EFA has two or more double chemical bonds. The double bonding twists the molecule, giving it a serpentine shape.
When incorporated into a cell's membranes, the snakelike EFA molecules add fluidity and flexibility to the membrane. But unfortunately, EFAs are rather unstable when exposed to air. The double bonds break down rapidly, producing a toxic form of fat that can be detected in food by its rancidity.
Preservatives may be added to food to prevent this breakdown from occurring, thereby increasing the shelf-life of the food. A natural preservative for fatty acids is vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), but the most commonly used preservatives are the synthetic antioxidants BHT and BHA.
Learn More: "Bad Fats Linked to Depression"
A Fat Is Born
Industrial food processing has discovered a more efficient way to prolong shelf life of products: hydrogenate the fatty acids, destroying the EFAs. In hydrogenation, the double bonds are broken by hydrogen gas and the unsaturated fatty acids become saturated with hydrogen.
This means that all sites for chemical bonding are filled. Naturally saturated fatty acids are commonly consumed in meat and dairy products. They are also manufactured in your liver and stored in your body's fat cells.
Saturated fatty acids are straight, not twisting, in shape, and impart stiffness and solidity to membranes. Human cell membranes usually have one saturated fatty acid lined up alongside one unsaturated fatty acid, producing just the right blend of stiffness and flexibility for responding properly to signals sent from other cells.
Manufacturing an Abnormal Oil
In food processing, the hydrogenation of vegetable oils is usually not complete. It is partial. Partially hydrogenated oils are easier to work with and produce a softer foodstuff than fully hydrogenated oils. "Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils have been in the American diet since 1900," note University of Illinois researchers.
Chemically, partial hydrogenation converts EFAs into trans-fatty acids, which are unsaturated fatty acids that twist abnormally. Trans-fatty acids do not have the serpentine shape and fluidity of naturally unsaturated fatty acids. Trans-fatty acids are stiff and straight, like saturated fatty acids, but because they are unsaturated, they replace natural unsaturated fatty acids in the cell membranes.
The result of trans fatty acid consumption is stiff cell membranes, abnormal response to signals from other cells, and an increase in dietary requirements for EFAs.
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are prevalent in manufactured foods, are loaded with these anti-nutrients.
In my book Superimmunity for Kids, I warned parents about the dangers of raising their children on margarine and other foods built from partially hydrogenated oils. My arguments derived from research on the chemical effects of trans-fatty acids and knowledge of how this chemistry could distort cell function. Clinical studies have vindicated the warning.
Nutrition researchers now sing together loud and clear: Eat zero trans fats! Read the ingredients on the label and skip anything that says hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated.
Now I'd like to hear from you:
What do you think of trans fats in the food supply?
How do you avoid trans fats?
What do you think of trans fats bans (such as New York City's)?
Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.
Leo Galland, M.D.
For more by Leo Galland, M.D., click here.
For more on diet and nutrition, click here.
References and Further Reading
 Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2009 Jun;5(6):335-44. Epub 2009 Apr 28. "Trans fatty acids: effects on metabolic syndrome, heart disease and diabetes." Micha R, Mozaffarian D. Department of Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA 02115, USA.
 J Am Diet Assoc. 2010 Apr;110(4):585-92. "Trans fats in America: a review of their use, consumption, health implications, and regulation." Remig V, Franklin B, Margolis S, Kostas G, Nece T, Street JC. Department of Human Nutrition, Kansas State University, 206 Justin Hall, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506, USA.
 Atherosclerosis. 2009 Aug;205(2):458-65. Epub 2009 Mar 19. "The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them." Kummerow, FA. Department of Bioscience, University of Illinois, Urbana, 61801, United States.
 Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;63 Suppl 2:S5-21. "Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence." Mozaffarian D, Aro A, Willett WC. Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA.
 N Engl J Med. 1999 Jun 24;340(25):1933-40. "Effects of different forms of dietary hydrogenated fats on serum lipoprotein cholesterol levels." Lichtenstein AH, Ausman LM, Jalbert SM, Schaefer EJ. Lipid Metabolism Laboratory, Jean Mayer U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, MA 02111, USA.
 CMAJ. 2005 Nov 8;173(10):1158-9. "Chewing the fat on trans fats." Murray S, Flegel K.
 N Engl J Med. 2007 May 17;356(20):2017-21. "New York to trans fats: you're out!" Okie S.
Ann Nutr Metab. 2004;48(2):61-6. Epub 2003 Dec 16. "Influence of trans fatty acids on health." Stender S, Dyerberg J. Danish Nutrition Council, Gentofte Hospital, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
PLoS ONE 6(1): e16268. 26-Jan-2011, Sanchez-Villegas A, Verberne L, De Irala J, Ruı´z-Canela M, Toledo E, et al. (2011) "Dietary Fat Intake and the Risk of Depression: The SUN Project."
Behavioral Neuroscience, Vol. 125, No. 4 "Fat Substitutes Promote Weight Gain in Rats Consuming High-Fat Diets," Susan E. Swithers, PhD, Sean B. Ogden, and Terry L. Davidson, PhD, Purdue University;
Power Healing: Use the New Integrated Medicine to Cure Yourself. Leo Galland, 384 pages, Random House, (June 1, 1998)
The Fat Resistance Diet Leo Galland, M.D. ( 2005)
Superimmunity for Kids : What to Feed Your Children to Keep Them Healthy Now, and Prevent Disease in Their Future, Leo Galland with Dian Dincin Buchman, Dell (August 1, 1989)
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Leo Galland, M.D. is a board-certified internist, author and internationally recognized leader in integrated medicine. Dr. Galland is the founder of Pill Advised, a web application for learning about medications, supplements and food. Sign up for FREE to discover how your medications and vitamins interact. Watch his videos on YouTube and join the Pill Advised Facebook page.
This information is provided for general educational purposes only and is not intended to constitute (i) medical advice or counseling, (ii) the practice of medicine or the provision of health care diagnosis or treatment, (iii) or the creation of a physician--patient relationship. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your doctor promptly.