This is the process that turns polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oil, which are normally liquid at room temperature, into fats that are solid at room temperature – margarine and shortening. To produce them, manufacturers begin with the cheapest oils – soy, corn, cottonseed or canola, already rancid from the extraction process-and mix them with tiny metal particles-usually nickel oxide.
The oil with its nickel catalyst is then subjected to hydrogen gas in a high-pressure, high-temperature reactor. Next, soap-like emulsifiers and starch are squeezed into the mixture to give it a better consistency; the oil is yet again subjected to high temperatures when it is steam-cleaned. This removes its unpleasant odor. Margarine’s natural color, an unappetizing gray, is removed by bleach. Dyes and strong flavors must then be added to make it resemble butter. Finally, the mixture is compressed and packaged in blocks or tubs and sold as a health food.
Most of these man-made trans fats are toxins to the body, but unfortunately your digestive system does not recognize them as such. Instead of being eliminated, trans fats are incorporated into cell membranes as if they were cis fats-your cells actually become partially hydrogenated! Once in place, trans fatty acids with their misplaced hydrogen atoms wreak havoc in cell metabolism because chemical reactions can only take place when electrons in the cell membranes are in certain arrangements or patterns, which the hydrogenation process has disturbed.
In the 1940’s, researchers found a strong correlation between cancer and the consumption of fat-the fats used were hydrogenated fats although the results were presented as though the culprit were saturated fats. In fact, until recently saturated fats were usually lumped together with trans fats in the various U.S. data bases that researchers use to correlate dietary trends with disease conditions. Thus, natural saturated fats were tarred with the black brush of unnatural hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Altered partially hydrogenated fats made from vegetable oils actually block utilization of essential fatty acids, causing many deleterious effects including sexual dysfunction, increased blood cholesterol and paralysis of the immune system.
Consumption of hydrogenated fats is associated with a host of other serious diseases, not only cancer but also atherosclerosis, diabetes, obesity, immune system dysfunction, low-birth-weight babies, birth defects, decreased visual acuity, sterility, difficulty in lactation and problems with bones and tendons.
Thankfully, this food additive has now been recognized by the FDA as dangerous and is slowly making its way out of the ingredient list of packaged goods. It will be quite some time until we are rid of this nefarious product, so consumers should still be diligent label readers.
For further reading, see this article from Harvard School of Public Health: Shining the Spotlight on Transfats