Plenty of research has been conducted on processed food, all of which infer the same thing: the health risks associated directly with the intake of processed food. A recent study conducted in the U.S. showed that Americans derive 57.9 percent of their energy intake from ultra-processed foods. Processed foods have also been associated with increased risks of diseases such as autoimmune disorder, cancer, chronic diseases, obesity, and even death.
Busy and stressful lives have forced people to look the other way when it comes to health. More people are now choosing convenience over healthy options, and this is where ultra-processed foods make their entry into your kitchen. Soft drinks, chocolates, ice creams, sweetened beverages, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, and fries have made to the list of comfort foods. These ready to eat, delicious food items are some of the brilliant examples of what ultra-processed food looks like.
While the convenience of procuring and eating is one of the major drivers of increasing intake of ultra-processed food, the other one has to do more with its composition. Ultra-processed food is denser, with less water content. This makes people eating them crave more. So if you are eating fried chicken straight out of the bucket, you would end up eating more of it compared to what you would have eaten had you grilled the same number of pieces on the wok in your kitchen. The home-grilled chicken would be less fatty and retain more of its water content, thus making you feel more satiated. The same does not apply to fried chicken, which is deep-fried in buckets of trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils.
To sum it up, convenience and increased cravings are two reasons why you might end up gorging on ultra-processed food, more than you would like.
This brings us to the topic of hydrogenated oils. What are partially and fully hydrogenated oils? Why does the fast-food industry use so much of these in their food preparation? What is the effect that they have on our health in the short and long term?
What is Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil?
Hydrogenated vegetable oil is one of the most common ingredients found in processed foods. Food manufacturers prefer hydrogenated vegetable, oil as they cost less and promise a longer shelf life.
Hydrogenated vegetable oils are made from oils extracted from plants, such as sunflowers, olives, and soybean. They are regular oils that you might be using in your kitchen anyways. However, these oils are found in liquid form in normal room temperatures. Manufacturers hydrogenate them to make them more solid so that they are more spreadable, much like peanut butter and margarine.
Hydrogenation refers to the chemical alteration of the structure of vegetable oil by introducing hydrogen molecules to fat in the oils. Partial hydrogenation leads to what we know as trans fats. Trans fats have been known to spike LDL (bad cholesterol) in the blood and lower HDL (good cholesterol), thus increasing risks of heart diseases.
While removing the component from packaged food altogether is not an option for food manufacturers, the FDA has asked all food companies to gradually phase out partially hydrogenated oil from their products. As a result, the average grams of trans fats per serving has been going down steadily over the years, as products are being reformulated. However, it will take some time until trans fats are completely removed from ultra-processed foods.
Till then, knowing what they consist of and how they impact your health will help so that you can find some healthy alternatives, instead.
Fully Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
You might be surprised to know that, unlike partially hydrogenated oil, fully hydrogenated oil is free of trans fats. Although they are processed in the same way as partially hydrogenated oil, they are virtually free of trans fatty acids.
Fully hydrogenated fats have a hard and waxy consistency, even at room temperature. This is why they are a preferred ingredient when manufacturing fat-based spreads. Fully hydrogenated vegetable oil might not contain trans fatty acids, but they do contain stearic acid, which is a form of saturated fat that is known to increase the risk of heart disease.
Biggest Sources of Hydrogenated Oils
- Frozen food
- Fast food
- Fried food
- Coffee creamer
- Processed foods
- Salad dressing
- Cake and brownie mixes
- Peanut butter
- Bakery products (cookies, cakes, muffins, brownies, and pies)
Beginning of Hydrogenated Oils
Partially hydrogenated oils were introduced into the diets and food supply at the end of the 19th century. Chemists, for the longest time, had been looking for an ingredient that would make food products last longer. In their pursuit of creating shelf-stable products that wouldn’t spoil easily, hydrogenated oil came into being. Chemists soon discovered that the hydrogenated oils could withstand higher cooking temperatures than regular oils and were cheaper. Both characteristics were perfect for food manufacturers who could see the silver lining of lower production costs and a longer shelf life for their products.
Soon, hydrogenated oils became a staple in people’s diets around the world, and it stayed like that for decades. That was until 2006, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) placed a requirement, asking manufacturers to mention the amounts of trans fats they were using in the production process on nutrition labels printed on their product’s packaging.
As food manufacturing dutifully followed the FDA requirements and shared the number of trans fats contained in their products, in 2015, the FDA declared that it was removing partially hydrogenated oils from its “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) list. Losing its place on the GRAS list came as a blessing to people consuming processed foods in the form of a fall in the number of hospitalizations due to strokes and heart attacks. This further went on to justify the FDA’s decision to ban trans fats by phasing them out of processed food products gradually.
The FDA has extended the date for products that are already in the market and were produced before June 18, 2018 to January 1, 2020. And for manufacturers who have an approved petition from the FDA to use partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, the date has been extended to January 1, 2021.
It is a little-known fact that, years before the FDA cracked the whip on partially hydrogenated oils, local authorities in the U.S. took action to lower exposure to this harmful ingredient. In fact, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were banned in New York City back in 2007. Other counties in New York followed suit and banned it during 2008-2011. The result was shocking but not surprising. The incidents of strokes and heart attacks fell by 6.2 percent, and incidences of heart attacks reduced by 7.8 percent. Although the number of stroke cases fell by a measly 3.6 percent, it was an achievement over the reported cases in counties that did not ban hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Several studies conducted during this period supported the FDA’s comprehensive restriction on partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil Health Risks
The chemical process of hydrogenation turns liquid vegetable oil into a tub of solid fat. To understand why fully hydrogenated vegetable oil is bad for health, despite being low or free of trans fat, you need to understand the process of hydrogenation.
Hydrogenation refers to the chemical process of reduction reaction that adds hydrogen molecules (H2) to certain substances. When hydrogen molecules are added to organic compounds utilizing hydrogenation, they become more saturated. The process of hydrogenation almost always uses a catalyst, as hydrogenation can only occur at high temperatures. Catalysts used in the process are mainly comprised of nickel, platinum or palladium.
The process of hydrogenation leads to the reduction in the number of double and triple bonds in hydrocarbons and is majorly used in the food industry to turn liquid oil into solid fat, which results in saturating the organic compounds. This conversion to saturated fats is what makes fully hydrogenated vegetable oil unhealthy for consumption.
You can tell the difference between partially and fully hydrogenated vegetable oils by seeing their consistency. Margarine and shortening are partially hydrogenated oils and are semi-soft. Fully hydrogenated oils are firmer, and while they do not contain artery inflaming trans fats, they are known to increase risks of heart disease over long term consumption.
Reheating partially hydrogenated fats for reuse is even more dangerous, as the release of trans fats from hydrogenated oil increases even more at heat levels of 180 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit.
Steer clear of high-fat food, such as fast food, fried food, and processed baked goods, as they use high levels of trans fats during the manufacturing process.
Research has been conducted on the effects of hydrogenated vegetable oils. Studies have shown a direct impact on health and risks associated with the intake of hydrogenated vegetable oils. Some of the tell-tale signs of hydrogenated vegetable oils affecting health are as below:
Increased Blood Sugar Levels
Certain research with a sample set of 85,000 women was conducted during a period of 16 years. The objective was to study the effect of trans fat consumption on blood sugar levels. The study found that women who consumed higher amounts of trans fats showed a considerably higher risk of higher blood sugar levels and type 2 diabetes.
Another study conducted on a small group of people, with 183 participants, showed that trans fats intake was directly proportional to insulin resistance. This leads the body to lose its ability to use insulin to regulate blood sugar levels.
Effects on Heart Health
The process of hydrogenation does create trans fats as a byproduct. This occurs due to partial hydrogenation. Even in fully hydrogenated vegetable oils, stearic acid leads to the production of saturated fats. These two kinds of fat have been shown to affect cholesterol levels in the blood. Trans fats increase the LDL levels in the blood and decrease HDL levels. High LDL levels in the blood lead to build-up along the arterial walls, forming waxy deposits called plaques. Over time, this build-up can lead to heightened risks of heart diseases and subsequently lead to a stroke.
A 20 year long study conducted on 78,778 women showed that increased intake of trans fats in diet led to a considerably higher risk of heart disease. Yet another study, conducted on 17,707 people, shed light on the fact that every two grams of fat consumed daily led to a 14 percent increased risk of strokes in males.
Inflammation is not really considered a serious health issue, as it is the immune system’s way of responding to illness caused by infection. However, when inflammation becomes chronic and starts occurring without any infectious attacks, that’s when it becomes a much more serious issue. Chronic inflammation can lead to diabetes, heart diseases, and even cancer.
Studies have shown that hydrogenated vegetable oil can lead to chronic inflammation. A five week study conducted on a group of 50 men revealed that by simply replacing their regular fat intake with trans fats intake, they remarkably increased their inflammation markers.
Another study conducted on a larger sample set of 730 women found that inflammation markers increased 73 percent in women who consumed a higher amount of trans fats, as compared to those women who consumed the least.
How to Steer Clear of Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils
There are a few ways of ensuring that you are not inadvertently adding hydrogenated vegetable oils to your diet. Here’s how:
Know What to Avoid
Knowing what to avoid is the first step to consciously avoid adding these slow killers to your diet. Start with avoiding the following:
- Vegetable shortening
- Ready-to-use dough
- Coffee creamers (dairy, non-dairy alike)
- Packaged snacks
- Fried foods
Use healthier substitutes to replace these items from your cooking or baking efforts or your diet.
For example, you can replace vegetable shortening with butter. If the recipe asks for one cup of vegetable shortening, you can replace the same with one cup of butter plus two tablespoons more.
Similarly, if you cannot live without your coffee and certainly cannot do without a creamer, you can try out a substitute from the following list:
- Collagen powder
- Pumpkin spice or spice of choice
- Cacao butter
- Whipped coconut cream
Alternatives to Frying
Instead of eating fried food, try some alternatives that taste as good, but sans the health risks.
The reason fried food seems so tempting is that it enhances food’s overall flavor, taste, aroma, and juiciness. Also, given its rich texture, the fat tends to keep you satiated for longer hours by making you feel fuller. If fat did not come with such a big red flag, it could quite easily be the most opted food group. But unfortunately, it is not. It is the harbinger of multiple health risks and weight gain.
Thankfully, there are some healthy ways of retaining your food’s taste and nutritive value without forsaking much. Should you opt to finally cut fat out of your diet, you can try these following methods of cooking food:
Sauté and Bake
One of the best ways to retain the juicy taste of chicken or the crunch of fries is to sauté these food items first in a tablespoon or two of canola or olive oil and brown them on either side. Once the food is browned, transfer the dish to the oven to cook it further. You can skip using oil during the sauté process too by replacing oil with vegetable and chicken broth instead.
Indulge in a Crumb Coating
A crumb coating on your favorite chicken fingers or fish fillets can give you the crunch you crave from fried food. Instead of going for your regular breadcrumbs, try to get hold of some Japanese breadcrumbs, also known as Panko. Panko is known to pack in a crunch to envy. You can dip the chicken finger or fish fillet in an egg batter or buttermilk (if you are looking for vegetarian option), roll it generously on a mixture of Panko breadcrumbs, flour, spices, and cornmeal, and then bake in the oven. There’s no oil, just pure nutrition and crunch in one of the world’s most favorite fried foods (without frying it).
Air frying has taken healthy cooking to the next level. This revolutionary way of cooking food (fried food, specifically) uses convection cooking to get the crunch you desire from your deep-fried food with zero or a negligible amount of oil. The air fryer throws it around and circulates heat around the chamber using a conventional convection fan. The food is then cooked at high temperatures sans oil, or you could also spray some cooking oil onto the fryer basket. This helps in maintaining the food’s taste without using lots of oil to make it crunchy.
Read Food Labels
Instead of just picking the yummiest fried snacks and fast foods off the shelf and dropping them into the basket, make it a point to read the nutrition label first. Stay away from products that mention the use of partially hydrogenated oils, as they are sure to contain trans fats, even if the packaging does not explicitly mention the same. A product might say it’s free of trans fats and still contain 0.5 grams or less of it per serving. This happens because the FDA allows manufacturers to label food that contains 0.5 g or less per serving as free from trans fats. So just because it is labeled so, doesn’t mean that it is actually free from trans fats.
Say No to Fried and Packaged Snacks
The biggest culprit when it comes to trans fats are packaged snacks. Known for their delicious flavors and convenience, people find it difficult not to fall into the trap of packaged snacks. However, the perception of the word snacks has changed over the years. Snacks are not unhealthy munchies. They are a very important part of a balanced diet. They help you stay full and stick to a lighter meal by keeping you full in between meals. They also keep your blood sugar levels from dropping suddenly. Therefore, it makes sense to make a conscious and healthy choice when you are choosing your go-to snacks. Instead of chips and popcorns, try choosing any of the following:
Make sure you read the nutrition label on packaged and processed foods that contain the above-mentioned snacks, as they may contain trans fats.
Using Vegetable Oils
Margarine is easy to cook with and easily makes its way to the kitchen of many. However, they are, in nature, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which makes them a highly risky ingredient to cook with. Make a conscious choice of opting health before convenience by choosing heart-healthy oils, such as avocado, safflower, or olive oil, instead.
Not all oils are bad. Studies have shown that safflower oil can improve blood sugar levels and lipid levels, thereby decreasing inflammation. If you are using these oils in cooking, then you could also consider baking or broiling the food in these oils by basting them, instead of deep-frying them.
Here’s a look at heart-healthy vegetable oils that you can use in your everyday cooking:
Canola oil is derived from the rapeseed plant and is virtually flavorless. This makes it the go-to moisturizing agent in making baked goods. It packs in a good amount of omega 3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids and also has the lowest level of saturated fat content (only 7 percent) as compared to all other cooking oils. Canola oil is relatively cheaper and has a smoke point of 204 degrees Celsius. You can use canola oil for baking and grilling.
Named the most versatile among all cooking oils, olive oil is packed with healthy fats and antioxidants. Unlike canola oil, olive oil packs in a stronger taste. It comes in two variants: extra virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil. As the name indicates, the first one is derived from the first press and has a fruitier fragrance to it. The flavor packs in a punch too. The second variant, virgin olive oil is obtained from the second press and has a lighter taste to it.
A smoke point of 210 degrees Celsius and its robust fragrance makes it best for cooking on low to moderate heat. Olive oil is not advisable for baking purposes though.
The refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 177 degrees, and the first press virgin coconut oil has a smoke point of 200 degrees. You can use the refined version for baking and sautéing and the unrefined version for frying. Coconut oil is also extremely calorie efficient at just 117 calories per tablespoon. Rich in antioxidants, coconut oil works very well in cold desserts.
Hydrogenated vegetable oils might have seen a peak in their popularity during the 19th century. But with a better understanding of nutritive values and the effect of hydrogenation of oils on human health, people are gradually becoming more conscious of what food they introduce into their bodies. With several healthier variants of hydrogenated oils available in the market, it is only a matter of awareness and choosing what’s healthy over what’s tasty.
With the FDA steadily phasing out hydrogenated oils out of the food products, it’s only a matter of time that manufacturers also consciously move towards healthier oil options. However, the cost will always be a concern for them, and there will always be unhealthy options involved in creating processed food.
It is therefore up to you, the consumer, to be aware and make the right choice for your health and keep looking for better alternatives and more nutritive options.