Trans fats, Look Before You Leap – Thursday Rant

When I was young and naive and followed the USDA food pyramid, my thoughts about government organizations went as far as “they have this job because they are the best and the smartest. I should do what they say.” Then I started to read.

When I was an undergrad, I was a vegan for almost a year because of the horrible way that animals are treated and the poor quality of meat and meat care. In this day and age of government regulation of… say… everything, why isn’t quality control taken more seriously? Preservatives, hormones, factory farms, mad cow disease… I’m all for farms and farmers being able to make a living, but not at the expense of my health. Just because hormones make a cow get bigger, does not make that extra meat healthy. Feed them grass, please –> Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed

Anyway, I digress. What I really wanted to talk about in this rant is trans fats. There are a few very insignificant naturally occurring trans fats out there, but most of them are created by an industrial process called hydrogenation. In the early 1900’s, people were starting to get this idea that saturated fat was bad. It also tended to spoil, making things harder to preserve. In 1898, Paul Sabatier developed the process of hydrogenation of vapors that would  come to change fats as we knew them. By 1902, the process of hydrogenating saturated oils like whale oil into partially hydrogenated oils became a patented procedure. Believe it or not, this won Sabatier a Nobel Prize (1). The reason it was such a big discovery was because trans fat content increased the shelf-life of everything it was in. Just because we can, we should…? (Look before you leap.) Put a stick of butter and a stick of margarine out on the table. The butter will spoil. The margarine won’t. Also, bugs won’t eat the margarine. Hint hint.


Over the years, the body of research implicating trans fat in disease has just grown, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that it was finally admitted to be killing people. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil had replaced much of the natural saturated fats people consumed, mostly for shelf-life and financial reasons. People tried to ignore the growing amount of research in favor of their Crisco cookies that would last forever, but in the 1990’s a study came out linking trans fats to 20,000 heart disease deaths per year (2). It was only then 1994! that trans fat labeling became regulated (3). Still to this day, a label can read “0 grams trans fat” if there is less than 0.5 grams per serving. Anyone use non-dairy creamer? Eat any commercial baked good? Anything with “partially hydrogenated in the ingredients list? That’s enough trans fat to affect your vascular health.

Because this is my area of research, I could get very very in depth here, but I’ll try to keep you interested. When fats are ingested, they are broken down into fatty acids that can be used for energy, hormone production, or phospholipid cell membranes. Cells have no efficient mechanism to break down unnatural trans fats, so the only thing they can do with them is incorporate them into cell membranes. Trans fats are rigid. Cell membranes need to be more fluid most of the time. Cells that are rigid don’t flow through the blood as well. Things back up. Cells accumulate lipids. –> Atherosclerotic lesion in vascular intima –> plaque build-up –> cardiovascular event. But wait, there’s more. Because the cells are trying desperately to break down the trans fat, they neglect other dietary fats. My research showed this quite reliably. In the following graph, every situation contained radioactive oleate which is a healthy fatty acid found in olive oil. To the radioactive olive oil was added either more olive oil, trans fat (elaidate), or stearate, which is a saturated fat found in animal products. Each bar measures the amount of radioactive oleate was metabolized. The presence of the elaidate caused the cells to “forget about” the oleate.

Data 1 graph

But that extra fat has to go somewhere.


These are human macrophages that have been treated with trans fat. The blue is the cell nucleus. The brighter red circles are excess lipid droplets. By very definition, these are developing “foam cells,” the main cells that make up arterial plaques (3). (Yes, I cited myself.) But hey, it saves us some money.

Thankfully… before I go any more insane, I found this article this morning in the New York Times. The FDA (how many years later) has figured out that we would rather not have heart attacks. They are in the process of fully banning trans fats from everything. Apparently, the voices of the health conscious have finally been heard.

FYI, since a paleo rule is NOTHING PROCESSED, we strict paleo eaters have been safe. This rant is more for the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association who have bake sales with trans fat-laden cookies to raise money. Who’s idea was that? The drug companies? Let’s give everyone diabetes and heart attacks! Fatten up all the people!!!


Rant over.

1. Nobel Lectures, Chemistry, 1901–1921. Elsevier. 1966.Reprinted online: “Paul Sabatier, The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1912”. Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2007-01-07.

2. Willett WC, Ascherio A (1995). “Trans fatty acids: are the effects only marginal?”. American Journal of Public Health85 (3): 411–412.

3. Zacherl JRMihalik SJChace DHChristensen TCRobinson LJBlair HC. Elaidate, an 18-carbon Trans-monoenoic fatty acid, inhibits β-oxidation in human peripheral blood macrophages. J Cell Biochem. 2013 Jul 31. doi: 10.1002/jcb.24633


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