Sunday, February 17, 2013

On Nutrition: Trans Fatty Acids

I'm starting a series "On Nutrition" to gather some basic health information regarding foodstuff – be warned, it will be based on evolutionary principles, the Paleo Diet and hopefully quite heretic.

First of all I want to collect what foodstuff can be involved in disease, and should therefore be avoided on a precautionary basis.

What is it and where can I find it?
Trans Fatty Acids are a type of fatty acids (of simply known as "fat"). The technical name typically used is "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil"*.

Typically Trans Fatty Acids are found in Margarine (or "Vegetable Shortening") produced from seed oils ("vegetable oils").

Unlike most seed oils, which are an oil at room temperature, Trans Fatty Acids are an solid fat, and can be used like butter.

Furthermore, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is used as an ingredient in some industrially produced foods (AKA "crap in a box").

Novel food? Industrial!
Trans Fatty Acids can be found in small quantities in naturally occurring foods. These levels are however low.

Only the industrial production made it possible to produce large amounts of seed oil and the hydrogenation of seed oils. Only since about 100 years is it possible to consume large amounts of Trans Fatty Acids. It was sold as an cheap replacement for Lard and Butter, and was being branded as "healthy" already back then.

It is chemically different enough from e.g. animal fats that it can cause disease, and it has in evolutionary terms only recently been introduced into human nutrition – so it is unlikely that we are evolutionary adopted to eating Trans Fatty Acids in any substantial amounts we can encounter with products like margarine.

Pathogenic pathways?
As the Trans Fatty Acids are close relatives of Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (n-6 PUFAs), they have the potential to interfere with n-6 metabolism in the human body. Especially the potential to be metabolize into substances that are close relatives of Series-2 Prostaglandines, but might have functional differences, has the potential to cause disease – especially considering the role of prostaglandines in inflammation.

Furthermore some of the health problems caused by the overconsumption of n-6 PUFAs might apply to Trans Fatty Acids as well, as they are related and chemically similar.

If you regularly consume margarine, you might want to try to substitute it for at least a couple of weeks with Ghee ("Clarified Butter") or Coconut Oil ("Palm Oil") to see if it has influence on your health.

I never consumed large amounts of margarine, so I don't have any personal experience.

Verdict: AVOID
The role of Trans Fatty Acids in disease are more and more being realized. Personally I think the evidence is already clear enough, and I would not wait until the evidence gets more clear to stop ASAP the consumption of Trans Fatty Acids.

The low levels of Trans Fatty Acids in naturally occurring foods should be OK though – the dose makes the poison in this case.


* "Fully hydrogenated vegetable oils" are by the way simple (and healthy) saturated fats.

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