Trans fats – the unknown danger

While the USA is already planning a general ban on trans fatty acids and some European countries are introducing statutory upper limits, the dangers posed by trans fatty acids are still largely unknown to us. Trans fatty acids arise as by-products in industrial fat hardening. These fats, which are mainly found in fast food and convenience foods, have been shown to tremendously increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Trans fats - the unknown danger


Trans fatty acids are fatty acids with carbon double bonds in the trans configuration. While the angled cis form occurs almost exclusively in naturally occurring unsaturated fatty acids, industrial processes such as fat hardening bring about a partial conversion into the elongated transform.

In fat hardening (hydrogenation), at least some monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids are converted into unsaturated fatty acids by pressure, high temperatures (100-200 ° C), and the use of finely divided nickel as a catalyst. With optimal fat hardening, the free double bonds of the previously unsaturated fatty acids are completely occupied by the missing hydrogen atoms. This regular arrangement does not always succeed, especially with the frequently used partial hardening.

The incomplete hardening of the fat creates trans-fatty acids, which are a burden for the entire metabolism. Trans fatty acids are thus formed as by-products in the partial hydrogenation of mono- or polyunsaturated cis-fatty acids by isomerization in the course of industrial fat hardening. They are also formed when polyunsaturated fatty acids are heated from around 130 degrees – an easily reached temperature when frying.

Up to 4 percent of all fatty acids in dairy products, meat and fish are trans fatty acids, vegetable fats are naturally practically free of them. In the past, according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the proportion of margarine production was often up to 20 percent due to incomplete fat hardening. Today, due to changing manufacturing techniques, products are available with a far lower proportion (maximum 2 percent).

Not all fat is the same

For the food industry, the inferior fat carriers are a cheap means to produce convenience products and fast food most cheaply. Since solid and heat-resistant fats are required for this, vegetable oil must be hardened. Consequence: French fries, chips, margarine, sausage products, canned meat products, ready meals, soup cubes, sauce powder, waffles, peanut butter, sausage, cheese, even vegetarian spreads and light products are real trans fat bombs.

After the (sensible) end of the low-fat hysteria, the focus is now on the distinction between “good” and “bad” fats: not so much how much fat is eaten, but what types of fat are consumed. Essentially, the match is unsaturated (= healthy) versus saturated (= unhealthy) fatty acids. Here is a good overview with further information: Good fats, bad fats

Health concerns

As unfavorable enjoyed and in abundance – as is the case in most industrialized western countries – harmful saturated fats are mainly from animal products: sausages, fatty meats, butter, whipped cream, etc. Hydrogenated vegetable fats join them in their Production of new fat molecules that are foreign to the body – in the form of trans fatty acids. These (previously touted as an alternative to animal fats) are particularly unhealthy because they massively increase cardiovascular disease risk.

According to the current state of knowledge, trans fatty acids in the human body lead, among other things, to an increase in the harmful LDL cholesterol, a decrease in protective HDL cholesterol, and the release of inflammatory mediators, which, as has been known for some time, lead to pathological changes in the blood vessels – with the Result of an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks.

Trans fatty acids are not recognized by the body as pollutants and are incorporated into cells like normal fatty acids; this contributes significantly to their harmfulness. People with special dietary habits (frequent consumption of fast food, ready meals, various baked goods, and low-quality margarine) ingest large amounts of hydrogenated fat and thus increase their risk of developing the diseases and metabolic disorders mentioned above.

Urgent need for action

The main contributors to the total intake of these fatty acids are margarine and shortening. We can also find them in foods such as fast food, manufactured cakes, and cookies. Deep-fried, baked goods (also from the bakery) and industrially produced foods such as ready-made pizzas, snacks, or even soft ice cream and cheap chocolate generally have a high proportion of trans fatty acids (TFA).

While the USA is already planning a general ban on trans fatty acids (TFA), there are statutory upper limits in Denmark, and official upper limit recommendations for TFA in Switzerland, the dangers posed by trans fatty acids are largely unknown to us and are only being recognized by a few companies in implemented in production. The addition “vegetable fats (partially hardened)” does indicate that some products refer to trans fatty acids, but there is no general obligation to declare (as currently discussed in the USA). However, a declaration requirement alone would not help, as the consumer would be overwhelmed in their application.

It would make sense to avoid trans-fatty acids in general and switch to healthy. Unsaturated fatty acids, as the international market leader in baked soup garnishes – The Austrian company LAND-LEBEN example – has done. All products manufactured by LAND-LEBEN are free of trans fatty acids – in fact, only unhardened palm fat has always been used in production.

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