Alternatives to trans fats
There are many alternatives to trans fats. Mostly, their use will cause the food industry some small additional expense or loss of convenience. Our mission is to convince them - and their political masters (or is that servants?) - that human life and health is more important than the size of food industry profits.
Note that all fats of ruminant origin - butter, cheese, beef fat, mutton fat etc - contain natural trans fats arising from bacterial fermentation in the gut, usually in the region of 2-6% of total fat. However these naturally occurring trans fats have a different isomeric profile to those of industrial origin, and the scientific consensus is that these natural trans fats, in the quantities and proportions in which they naturally occur, do not endanger health. See our page on natural trans fats.
- Butter fat
- Coconut and palm oils
- Animal fat
- Fully hydrogenated vegetable oil
- Traditional liquid vegetable oils
- Liquid vegetable oils from advanced oilseeds
If you are eating margarine on your bread and toast, or using it in cooking and baking, there is one excellent and readily available alternative, healthy, nutritious and delicious: butter.
Butter has long been prized as a high quality food. Health scares about saturated fats of animal origin have frightened a great many people off butter in recent decades - but quite wrongly so. All those people who have switched to margarines (mostly based on hydrogenated vegetable oils) have actually been consuming a far less healthy alternative - and one that tastes far less good as well.
Of course, it makes sense to limit how much butter you eat if you need to cut back on the calories, as butter is a rich source of energy. But given that we all have to eat some fat - indeed fat is an essential part of our diets - butter is a good choice.
Butter also contains small amounts of lauric acid, a uniquely health-promoting fat that is also found in coconut oil and mother's milk. It is also a good natural of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) - a natural polyunsaturated trans fat with anti-cancer properties. Also beneficial is vaccenic acid - a naturally occuring trans-mono unsaturate.
Most beneficial is butter (as with other dairy produce) from cows that graze on real pastures of mixed grass and herbs. This enhances the nutritional value of the butter, and takes the pressure off the Amazon rainforest which is currently being burnt away to grow soyabeans - most of which are used for high protein animal feed. So choose UK organic butter, or Anchor.
Of course, some people can't stand the stuff, or are allergic to dairy produce generally. Unfortunately, you can't please everyone ...
We have also noted the growing use of 'butter fat' as an ingredient of processed foods. This is mostly derived from 'surplus' EU butter, by removing the water, protein etc, then sold cheaply (compared to butter, anyway) as a bulk ingredient to the food industry. As a semi-hard fat, it substitutes directly for hydrogenated oil. Without the water and protein it also has good keeping properties - good enough that, for example, Tesco is happy to use it in its own-brand dark chocolate. Nestlé also use butterfat in Kit-Kat bars, presumably for the cream filling. Its fatty acid composition is roughly half saturates, and half monounsaturates.
Animal fats have been eaten by humans, and our ancestors, since the dawn of time. So our bodies have had plenty of time to get used to them. They are a highly efficient way of taking in dietary energy, and provided that their energy is burnt off through exercise & maintaining body temperature, they cause few problems.
Also, contrary to popular mythology (encouraged by the medical establishment and regulators), animal fats are not all saturated. Lard, for example, is composed of roughly equal amounts of mono-unsaturated and saturated fatty acids, and is very low in myristic acid, the main saturated fatty acid associated with cardiovascular disease. The more liquid poultry fats have even less saturated fat.
The harder animal fats - such as beef fat and venison fat - have a high proportion of longer chain saturates such as stearic acid, which is cholesterol neutral, and only traces of myristic acid. As for palmitic acid - a saturated fat which raises cholesterol, found in all animal fats - our body readily converts surplus carbohydrate in our diets into palmitic acid for energy storage. Cutting our dietary intake of palmitic acid will, therefore, do little to lower levels of palmitic acid in our bodies so long as we eat a carbohydrate-rich diet.
Animal fats also contain cholesterol - infamous as a cause of heart disease. However, dietary cholesterol only correlates weakly with blood serum cholesterol - which in turn does not directly relate to cholesterol in tissues, or cholesterol laid down in a plaque on the inner surface of arteries - which is what is really dangerous to health. The creation of arterial cholesterol plaque is also stimulated by oxidisation, often caused by free radicals - and saturated fats provide some protection against free radicals.
Natural animal fats also contain other factors beneficial to health, such as tocopherols, natural anti-oxidants better known as Vitamin E, as well as other fat-soluble vitamins and mineral nutrients.
So if your health problem is high cholesterol, there is a lot more to putting that right than giving up on animal fats. Recent scientific studies indicate that it is often carbohydrate, and especially refined carbohydrate, which is most beneficially removed from our diets, rather than fat generally and saturated fat in particular . For most of us (barring vegetarians) animal fats are a considerably superior alternative to hydrogenated vegetable fats.
Another advantage of animal fats is that they tend to be chemically stable (unlike the polyunsaturated vegetable oils). They can therefore be used for frying and cooking without significant deterioration.
In addition, far less of these saturated fats are absorbed into food while cooking - half as much, according to studies by the US Food and Drug Administration. This means that food that is deep fried in animal fat, such as fish and chips, contains less fat - as well as better fat - than is the case if is cooked in standard frying oils of [partially] hydrogenated vegetable origin.
Coconut and palm oils
Coconut and palm oils are both saturated vegetable fats, derived from the fruit of tropical trees. Because they are saturated fats, they have widely - and wrongly - been supposed to be unhealthy. The myth that they are bad for you was initiated in 1986 by the US soybean industry, in a classic piece of black propaganda which was almost entirely effective. In essence, the entire story was based on the fact that a single cow did not thrive while eating a diet of hydrogenated coconut oil. In the process of hydrogenation, all the essential fatty acids, both n-3 and n-6, were of course wiped out, while also creating trans fats!
Congressional hearings were held in 1988, at which the Surgeon General C Everett Koop dismissed the anti-tropical oil arguments as ill-founded and absurd. Yet the US soy industry won the day, and palm and coconut oils, until then widely used across the US food industry, were suddenly dropped and replaced with hydrogenated vegetable oils made from locally-grown soy, corn, sunflower and rapeseed.
See also this Statement on Palm Oil (.pdf) to WHO by Nevin S. Scrimshaw, Ph.D., M.D., M.P.H., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, President, International Nutrition Foundation, Senior Advisor, Food and Nutrition Program, United Nations University. Dr Scrimshaw argues that the saturated fats in palm oil behave like unsaturated vegetable fats in terms of their health qualities.
Also see the submission to WHO by the Malaysian Palm Oil Promotion Council, which argues that palm oil has been unfairly stigmatised, in that the saturated fatty acid palmitic acid, found in palm oil, behaves similarly to or better than unsaturated vegetable oils in terms of cholesterol levels, and quoting numerous studies in support of this view. Download here (.pdf).
Under present conditions, however, we would discourage a mass switch to palm oil: tropical forests of vital importance to the world's climate and biodiversity are being ravaged by the palm oil industry across southeast Asia and South America.
However coconut oil does not presently suffer from this problem: coconut groves in many parts of the world have been abandoned due to the low price of coconut, and farmers in producing countries such as the Solomon Islands left in poverty. Coconut oil is even being used as biodiesel in producer countries - even while it is sold in the UK by health food and dietary supplement companies at some £15 for 400ml.
Coconut oil is not merely not bad for you, it is one of the healthiest fats in existence. Here's a quick rundown on the health-promoting qualities of coconut oil. It
- is active against pathogenic viruses, bacteria and fungi
- is a good source of the medium chain saturated fatty acid lauric acid, a protective substance found in mother's milk (and in butter, in lesser amounts), which boosts the immune system
- contains other medium chain fatty acids; in general, these are not easily converted to body fat, but preferentially burnt for energy
- protects against heart disease and cancer
- has the lowest energy content of any culinary oil - and so it is less fattening
- guards against premature aging and wrinkles
- is loaded with antioxidants
- has anti-inflammatory qualities.
It has been reported that Sri Lanka, where coconut oil is traditionally used for cooking, has the world's lowest rate of heart disease. This may once have been the case however since the 1970s coconut oil consumption in Sri Lanka has declined and heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular disease have soared to become the country's number one killer.
More reliable indications come from studies carried out in the 1960's in the South Pacific islands of Pukapuka and Tokelau, near New Zealand. At the time the islanders ate a huge amount of coconut, with coconut fat accounting for 50-60 percent of dietary energy, and enjoyed excellent health. These studies are quoted in The Coconut Diet by Cherie & John Calbom.
Fully hydrogenated oil
Fully hydrogenated vegetable oil is oil that has been converted into a fully saturated form. In most cases the main (or only) fatty acid present in the fat is stearic acid, which is hard at room temperature. It does cannot contain trans fat - only unsaturated fat can be 'trans'. It therefore relatively harmless. However, use of the description "hydrogenated vegetable oil" does not normally indicate that the oil in question has, in fact, been fully hydrogenated. Fully hydrogenated oil is like candle wax in its texture and hardness - indeed it is used for this purpose. But this is not, in general, what the food industry is after.
However it offers a solution for the food industry: to blend fully hydrogenated vegetable oil with completely unhydrogenated vegetable oil, to give the mechanical / fluid properties required. As Robert M. Reeves, president of the Institute of Shortening & Edible Oils wrote to the Washington Post (August 30, 2003; Page A27):
"One trans fat alternative involves blending fully hydrogenated oil with unhydrogenated oil, neither of which contains trans fats, resulting in a final product that contains no trans fats but that may be identified as 'partially hydrogenated' in the ingredient statement."
To see the full letter, click here.
See also the related section on Interesterification, below.
Traditional liquid vegetable oils
One obvious alternative to the use of hydrogenated vegetable oil is liquid vegetable oil from traditional sources, for example, canola / rapeseed, corn or soy. Not to mention olive oil, which in Italy, Spain and other producer countries is 'drizzled' over bread instead of butter (I do this too and it's great), as well as being used on salads, in frying, etc.
However some liquid vegetable oils, in particular soya, canola and rapeseed oils, themselves contain up to around 5 percent trans fat as a result of trans isomerisation of alpha linolenic acid (ALA) during prolonged high temperature refining, deodorising and other processing.
While the use of liquid oils is a good idea in a domestic culinary context, the food industry often needs long shelf lives and thus the chemical stability that hydrogenation confers to unsaturated vegetable oils. Hydrogenation is normally applied mainly in order to stablise certain fatty acids within vegetable oils (mainly ALA) which are prone to rancidity.
But in the case of frozen food, this should not be a significant factor, since the food is conserved by low temperature. There is little obvious reason for using hydrogenated oil rather than liquid oil in frozen food products unless very long storage times are anticipated.
Seed breeders have also developed varieties of soy, canola and rapeseed with very low levels of ALA. Read on ...
Liquid oils from advanced oilseeds
If the oil from traditional oilseeds does not have the qualities the food industry needs, why not change the plants and the seeds they produce, instead of changing the oil? All the more so when this is possible by selective breeding, without resorting to genetic modification?
In the case of soy oil, widely used in the USA, the principal unstable 'fatty acid' is alpha linolenic acid (ALA). This has prompted soy breeders to produce seed with a very low linolenic acid content. Leading the field is the State University of Iowa, which has produced soy with 1 percent linolenic acid content, as compared to 7 percent in normal soy. At this low level, there is no longer any need for hydrogenation.
This work has been carried out by two College of Agriculture professors, Walter Fehr and Earl Hammond, in a project that has been in progress since the 1960s using conventional plant breeding techniques, so no GM. For more details see http://www.notrans.iastate.edu/.
- satisfies the need of the food industry for stability and shelf life, without the need for hydrogenation;
- contains a fatty acid profile which is beneficial to human health.
The company says of this product:
"Like traditional canola oil, Natreon contains about 7 percent saturated fat, the lowest of any vegetable oil. The unsaturated fat profile of Natreon also is desirable with more than 70 percent monounsaturated fat and a higher omega-3 polyunsaturated fat content than most of the partially hydrogenated oils it can replace. In addition to health benefits, monounsaturated fat gives Natreon canola oil natural stability, making it ideal for high-heat applications, such as frying, and for products that require extended shelf-life, such as baked goods and snack foods. Natreon canola oil has a neutral flavor and preserves the good, clean taste of foods. It also gives fried foods a light, crisp texture, which still is number one with many consumers."
This sounds good to us! Read all about it here.
According to the American Soybean Association,
"Instead of partially hydrogenating soy oil, food companies may be able to meet some of their specific needs by using a process called interesterification that rearranges the oil's fat molecules without adding hydrogen molecules, producing a product with few trans fatty acids. These alternative ways to process soy oil may slightly increase the cost of the finished product, but soy oil is relatively inexpensive and produces a healthy product that's low in saturated fat."
American Soybean Association, ASA Responds to FDA Call for Trans Fat Labeling. July 9 2003. http://www.soygrowers.com/newsroom/releases/2003%20releases/r070903.htm.
Danish enzyme company Novozymes A/S (a biotech-based world leader in enzymes and microorganisms for industrial use) has recently launched Lipozyme TL IM, an enzyme to make trans fatty acid-free bakery shortenings and margarine via enzymatic esterification and interesterification. By using the enzyme, oil processors can control the conversion and no trans fatty acids are produced. According to Novozymes "Lipozyme TL IM uses cost-effective technology that will match the current solids profiles. This simple and easy process yields a more natural fat and it's chemical-free." See www.novozymes.com.
In January 2007 the following paper was published: Stearic acid-rich interesterified fat and trans-rich fat raise the LDL/HDL ratio and plasma glucose relative to palm olein in humans by Kalyana Sundram, Tilakavati Karupaiah, Kc Hayes, Nutrition & Metabolism 2007, 4:3 (15 January 2007). This article raises interesting questions about the health impacts of stearic acid-rich randomly interesterified vegetable oil versus oleic-rich palm oil. The palm oil comes out best ... but then the study was funded by the palm oil industry. The study does not indicate where the difference arises, eg from the random arrangement of fatty acids in the triacyl glyceride, from the balance of monounsaturated to polyunsaturated fatty acids, or from the effects of palmitic versus stearic acid. We need answers to these questions before jumping to conclusions.
Another alternative is to use a non-fat: something which feels like a fat in the mouth, or which replicates the mechanical properties of fat - and can thus replace some or all of the fat content of a food product - but which is not really a fat at all.
One such example is Z-Trim, made by FiberGel Technologies, part of US-based Circle Group Holdings, Inc. This is a "zero-calorie" gel made from corn bran fibre and a few additives. The company claims that Z-Trim can replace fat in processed foods volume for volume, up to 50 percent of the original fat quantity, without any difference in taste or mouth feel. Obviously Z-Trim cannot replace all the hydrogenated fat in a product, but it looks to us as if it has a worthwhile contribution to make in a trans fat reduction programme, while also reducing total fat and thus the calorific content of products it is part of.