Organic Articles: Trans – Essential Mediation!

The Organic Consultancy

Simon Wright
The Organic Consultancy

Trans – Essential Mediation!

Simon Wright, O&F Consulting

Kentucky Fried Chickens decision in October to stop using trans-fats has once again turned the media spotlight onto this Franken-fat. KFC are following in the footsteps of Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsburys who have all announced plans to curtail the presence of trans fats in their own-label products. But surely this is of only academic interest to the natural foods industry who would never sell a food containing trans fats?

If only it were that simple. In nature, the hydrogen atoms in a fatty acid are usually on the same side of the double bonds of the carbon chain. Hydrogenation twists the double bonds so that the hydrogen atoms end up on different sides of the chain hence trans (Latin for across). Trans fats are created when vegetable or fish oils are hydrogenated, a process which solidifies the oil and extends its shelf life. Hydrogenated fats are used to make long-life biscuits and cakes and are also used for deep fat frying (hence the KFC useage). A series of reports from the US Institute of Medicine, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and other expert committees have upheld the view that trans-fats should be considered as even more risky than saturated fats in their tendency to raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. This is because whilst both saturated fats and trans fats raise the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol, trans fats uniquely depress the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. In the words of the NAS trans fatty acids provide no known benefit to human health.

So far, so bad. What muddies the water is that trans fats also occur naturally in meat and dairy products from ruminants such as cows and sheep at a level of 2-5% total fat. Human milk too can contain 1-7% trans fats (as a percentage of total fat). The US National Dairy Council has asserted that the trans fats present in animal foods are of a different type to those in hydrogenated oils and do not appear to exhibit the same negative effects. The principal naturally occurring trans fat (vaccenic acid) can be metabolised by humans to conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has beneficial effects on human health. The effect of consuming trans fats from hydrogenation as opposed to consuming trans fats that occur in nature is considered by Walter Willett in The New England Journal of Medicine (April 2006) where he states that the sum of the current evidence suggests that the public health implications of consuming trans fats from ruminant products are relatively limited.

From these figures the highest levels of naturally occurring trans fats would appear to be found in butter, which could contain a 2-4g trans fats per 100g of butter. However compare these figures to margarine made with partially hydrogenated fat where the total trans fat content could be as high as 36g per 100g of margarine. So hydrogenated products can easily contain 10 times more trans fats than would be found occurring naturally: plus the naturally-occurring trans fats may not be as harmful to human health as their synthetic equivalents. No contest: Welcome Back To (Organic) Butter!