Solid fats are very useful in many recipes – cookies, pie crusts, doughnuts, and deep-fried foods – all those yummy foods we love to hate but also love to eat. When your great-grandmother made pie crust she used butter, lard, or tallow, animal fats solid at room temperature. They made foods moist and crisp and kept them fresh for a number of days. Many food companies began expanding production in the early 1900s and they were looking for a cheaper, stable form of solid fats.
In 1902 a German chemist developed hydrogenation that turned liquid vegetable oils, which were cheap and abundant, into solid fats. He bubbled hydrogen gas through the oil to fill up the unsaturated carbon chains (fatty acids) making them look more like saturated animal fats. Crisco was born in 1911! This new solid vegetable fat was inexpensive, had a long shelf life, did not need refrigeration, and it was tasteless. The perfect ingredient to mass produce cookies, cakes, candies, doughnuts, microwave popcorn, and a stable fat for frying that could be reused many times. It permeated the food supply and health experts believed it was healthier to eat than saturated animal fats.
As butter became scarce in World War II the age of margarine bloomed and butter and lard became the bad guys. Fast food companies like McDonald’s were in their infancy offering tons of French fries with every burger sold. At the same time, cardiovascular research paralleled this food industry growth with studies showing too much fat and saturated fat, in particular, were the main drivers for heart disease. Eating polyunsaturated fats from plant sources was the health message of the day.
Regardless of how little fat we ate or how much we cut out saturated fat, heart disease remained the number one killer yearly. Why? Science and research were marching on only to discover that eating too much trans fat was actually a greater risk for heart disease than eating saturated fat. The major source of trans fat in our diets was hydrogenated vegetable oils. To alert consumers to this risk, the FDA required food companies to add trans fat content to the nutrition label in 2006. Companies didn’t want to be associated with the latest dietary devil so reformulation rapidly took place and labels everywhere were touting trans fat free, zero trans fat.
But this trans fat free labeling came with one big loophole because nutrition labeling regulations allow fat values to be rounded. If a serving of food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, the value could be listed as 0. Health experts recommend eating no more than 1% of your daily calories as trans fat, which equals less than 2 grams of trans fat daily for most adults, less for kids. If you eat multiple servings of small amount of trans fat, less than 0.5 grams, it can quickly add up and damage your health. Zero trans fat labeling did drive down the amount of trans fat eaten but there were still people at risk. That is why in 2016 the FDA declared that trans fat was no longer a safe food ingredient.
You should know that if a fat is totally hydrogenated it does not contain trans fats. The trans fat structure only occurs when fats are partially hydrogenated. Companies who created solid vegetable fats are now using the process of total hydrogenation to produce new trans fat free solid vegetable shortenings for commercial use. They harden the fat and then add back oil to get the desired consistency. If you see fully hydrogenated or totally hydrogenated fat listed on a food label, the ingredient is trans fat free.
Lard, butter and coconut oil are back in favor because we now know it isn’t how much fat you eat each day, but the type of fat that counts. The story of fat continues to unfold – stay tuned for updates.
© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of 30 books. Available as eBooks from iTunes and Kindle/Amazon:
Healthy Wholefoods Counter
Complete Food Counter
Fat and Cholesterol Counter
Available in print from Gallery Books:
Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd Ed.
Your Complete Food Counter App: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/your-complete-food-counter/id444558777?mt=8
For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to: www.TheNutritionExperts.com.