The Big Fat Lies

The Truth About Fats

The quick answer:  No food group is more incorrectly understood by the public than fat.  For best health, avoid refined (especially hydrogenated) oils, in favor of traditional fats (olive oil, butter, lard, etc.).


The 2nd Deadly Trend

Last week we focused on the 1st of seven deadly changes to our food—the rise of sugar from an occasional treat to America’s biggest source of calories.  Sugar is the #1 additive in processed foods.

This week we discuss the 2nd deadly change:  factory fats, beginning with vegetable oil hydrogenation.  To explain, here are seven common hydrogenation and trans fat facts:

  1. Why were refined oils (corn oil, soybean oil, etc.) hydrogenated?  Hydrogenation extends shelf life.  An unnaturally long shelf life is good for the food business but generally bad for our health.
  2. What causes short shelf life?  Omega-3 oils—the ones needed for brain, eye, and nerve health, as well as fertility—after being processed, are highly reactive to oxygen.  When oxidized these oils become rancid which spoils taste. 
  3. How do you hydrogenate refined oil?  The oils are heated and passed through a reaction chamber where they are exposed to hydrogen gas in the presence of a metallic catalyst.  The hydrogen saturates the carbon atoms that form the backbone of the oil molecule.  This thickens the oil and makes it much less reactive to oxygen, but also forms toxic trans fats.
  4. How bad are trans fats?  They’re deadly.  The Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) is our leading academic center for nutrition.   In 1994, Dr. Willett and others from HSPH published a paper in the American Journal of Public Health showing that trans fats cause between 30,000 and 100,000 deaths every year in the US.  Trans fats are a risk factor for inflammation, diabetes, and heart disease. 
  5. How did trans fats get into our diet?  The first hydrogenated fat product was Crisco, introduced a century ago in 1911.  Crisco was followed by margarine as a butter substitute during WWI.  Vegetable oils, introduced later, were partially hydrogenated.  Because processed foods depend on vegetable oils for mouth feel and taste, most processed foods contained trans fats.
  6. Are trans fats still allowed in food?  Yes.  As the public has become more informed about the toxicity of trans fats, the use of hydrogenation has declined, but Congress has not banned trans fats, though labeling was required in 2006.  Denmark effectively banned trans fats in food in 2003, followed by Switzerland in 2008.   New York and a few other cities restrict the use of trans fats by restaurants.
  7. Why do some processed foods claim “zero trans fats” but have hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list?  Our federal government wrongly allows foods that contain less than 0.5 gram per serving to be labeled “zero trans fats.”   This is shocking because the prestigious Institute of Medicine recommends we eat absolutely no trans fats.

The Power of A Woman

Dr. Mary Enig of the University of Maryland was the first to publicly warn of the toxic nature of trans fats.  She also argued that trans fats were a cause of inflammation and heart disease.  This claim was controversial as the public had been told saturated fat and cholesterol was the main cause.  Enig pointed out that man had eaten saturated fats long before the rise of heart disease.  She further noted that trans fat intake increased in step with heart disease while saturated fat intake actually declined as a percent of calories.

Dr. Enig took a lot of flak from the food industry but stood her ground—time has shown her to be right.  For a better understanding of which fats are healthy, read her excellent book, Know Your Fats.

Dr Fred Kummerow, Enig’s colleague at the U. of Maryland, is also a feisty opponent of trans fats.  In 2009, at the age of 94, he submitted a 3000-word petition to the FDA that began, “I request to ban trans fats from the American diet.”  He publicly commented, “Everybody should read my petition because it will scare the hell out of them.”  I called Dr. Kummerow this morning to see if the FDA had responded to his petition—as required within 180 days.  I’ll share his response when it comes.

Deep Fat Frying

Deep fat frying is the ultimate test of cooking oil, as the oil sits for days at high temperatures, exposed to oxygen.  In the past tallow was successfully used (thus the great taste of the early McDonald’s fries).  When the public was falsely taught that saturated fats like tallow were unhealthy, the food industry converted to hydrogenated vegetable oils.  Unfortunately, because of the trans fats, this was far unhealthier.  Tragedies like this keep happening with Food Inc.

Deep fat frying thus remains the last major use of hydrogenated oils.  To my knowledge, only In-N-Out has stopped, but problematic oxidation of fats from extended use at high temperature remains.  I suspect the very last refuge for hydrogenated oil use will be the mom-and-pop donut shop. 

The 2nd Healthy Change protects from toxic trans fats and other unhealthy stuff found in deep fat fryers:

This means no French fries, no donuts, no onion rings, no corn dogs, not even the toxic deep fried Twinkies or Snickers Bars at the county fair.  Please note this does not eliminate deep fat frying for the home cook, using fresh and healthy oils.  Better yet, check our recipe, for Oven-Roasted Fries.  The recipe works with sweet potatoes or yams also.

In 13 weeks we’ll return to the subject of fats, discuss the importance of balancing omega-6 and omega-3 in the diet, and recommend the use of traditional fats over refined vegetable oils. 

Pease comment:  Share your experience with trans fats, or your recipe for home fried vegetables.

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Reader Comments (25)

Skip, I know you hear this over and over again but thank you so much for keeping this blog. I love reading it because you back everything up with scientific evidence and encourage us all to eat "real" food, food we can make and that is healthy for us. Thank you.


January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

While we are on the topic of fats, I have heard a couple times in the past month that I should avoid Coconut Oil. I don't believe it but was curious if you knew why some people believe this. I buy cold-pressed coconut oil from Whole Foods for some of my cooking and figured it was a healthy fat, just like olive oil.

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal

Coconut oil is a saturated fat, thus the negative press about it. It is great for frying desserts. We like to make scones (also known as sopapillas or elephant ears), donuts, etc. Not that we have those very often! has some recipes for these types of foods using whole grains and less refined sugars.

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Crystal, we eat coconut oil in our home. I'm making Katie's Granola tomorrow and I will use coconut oil. In fact, if more of us used this healthy oil, it would become less expensive. Dr. Mary Enig is a strong advocate of coconut oil.

In the last century we erroneously were told that saturated fats were unhealthy, even though they had been safely consumed for centuries in the form of butter, olive oil, coconut oil, and lard. The irony is we ate polyunsaturated refined oils that were hydrogenated thinking this was healthier. This was a terrible mistake.

All fats include a blend of fatty acids that are saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated, The more saturated, the more solid at room temperature. Fats from warm climates are more saturated; fats from cold climates are more unsaturated, think of salmon, so rich in the highly unsaturated omega-3 oils. If salmon had more saturated fat, the fish would be stiff as a board in cold water.

A healthy diet requires a moderate amount of all these fats. We also need a balance of the omega-6 and omega-3 fats. We'll come back to the subject of healthy traditional fats in future posts. Best.

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

But does this mean I can eat fries from In and Out? :)

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterchristy

I look forward to seeing your posts come up in my google reader every week. I have made plans to switch my diet gradually over the course of this year and decided to implement your healthy changes.

I was pleased to see this come up because I just threw out the margarine in our house. I replaced it with a mix of butter and olive oil (so it's spreadable). We only occasionally deep fry at home but I do have a craving for fast food fries about once a month. I'll just have to make them at home. *sigh* More work for me.

Thanks for doing all the research and making this a great website.

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

Thanks for this information. This has really helped me to be more consciously informed about what I eat and what I feed my family. What I have learned from your site and books like Michael Pollan's, "Food Rules" is that the closer to food in it's natural state, the better and healthier we are. The problem is that most of us today wouldn't know real food if it got up and slapped us in the face! And I sometimes think that the Government is more concerned about losing dollars from these big food corporations that are selling us this stuff than the public's welfare.

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTequitia

I read that coconut oil is a great choice for cooking because it has a high smoke point, so it isn't oxidized like other oils. Skip, have you read about this? I love In-n-out for the occasional french fry fix.

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

I have a question. Is it better to use butter or margarine when making a grilled cheese sandwich? I used to use margarine when making toast then I stopped and started to use butter. Now I am back to margarine. I feel that butter is a better route than margarine. Am I wrong?

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda A.

Christy, you're teasing, right?

Cindy, mixing butter with olive oil so it's "spreadable" right out of the refrigerator combines two healthy fats. In warm climates, where butter can't be kept out, this seems a good substitute.

Tequitia, you're right that we've lost our point of reference on what is real food, but we can get it back.

Lindsey, yes, the more saturated oils like coconut and palm oil, or extra light olive oil, have higher melting points. If oil is heated enough to smoke it's been oxidized and shouldn't be used.

Amanda, I would avoid (hydrogenated) margarine, as well as the newer refined oil "spreads." Hydrogenation saturated oils and gave a butter-like texture. So now that hydrogenation is finally being abandoned, a new way is needed to "thicken" vegetable oils. One process to change the texture by changing molecular structure is called "interesterification". It's a long word, but yields a texture similar to hydrogenation. Is it safe? The makers claim it is in the short run but no one knows about the long term effects. As it took a century to reveal the harm of trans fats, we should be cautious of all new factory-made food-like products. I would stay with natural fats, like butter.

January 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Hi Skip,
Great post! So informative. I read earlier that Denmark just recently implemented a tax on foods high in saturated fat. Maybe the US can follow in their footsteps :)

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Steenblik

Julie, you're teasing me. The Danish are trying to improve their diet but I suspect the issue may be more about the amount of meat in their diet, especially processed meats. Meat is a primary source of saturated fats.

There is a bias against saturated fats that may not be well founded—more research is needed. Saturated fats play many roles in the body and are necessary for good health. Heart disease was incorrectly blamed on dietary saturated fats and cholesterol. It appears now that the disease is multifactorial, has many causes, including smoking, excessive sugar, hypertension, too little exercise, excess stress, and hydrogenized trans fats.

The link between saturated fats and heart disease is not strong, but there may be some risk factor. There is plenty of evidence that a diet high in meat, especially feedlot meats, is unhealthy. Because much of our protein comes from meat, it's possible the problem is not the saturated fat in the meat as much as the protein, or other unnatural effects of the feedlot diet. Whatever the cause, most sources agree that it's wise to be sparing in our meat intake, and to buy pastured meat if possible.

January 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Do you listen to NPR's Planet Money? On Friday, they posted a podcast called "Who Killed Lard?" I think you'll find it worthwhile to listen to.

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHolli

Skip, what about canola oil? I hear mixed info on that, and I think I remember reading here that it was an acceptable option. True or not? I get so confused sometimes, there seem to be so many different opinions.

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

Holli, thanks for sharing the podcast, "Who Killed Lard?" It was accurate except for one common error. The correct facts are these:
1. The book, "The Jungle" in 1906 about disgusting practices in the Chicago slaughter houses did cause public revulsion about meat products. One good outcome was meat consumption dropped by over 1/3 in the following years.
2. P&G started as a soap and candle business using a common material, tallow. For price reasons, they were looking for an alternative and cottonseed oil was very cheap. The invention in Germany of hydrogenation provided the way to convert oils into solid fats and extend the shelf life.
3. P&G introduced their hydrogenated cottonseed oil product--Crisco--with a Madison Ave. marketing blitz that quickly converted the public from lard to Crisco.
4. The success of the marketing campaign at changing public behavior demonstrated the power of advertising to turn the public into sheep. All the food companies picked up on this and today they collectively spend over $30 billion a year to keep us sheep eating their factory foods. The challenge today is to become deaf to Food Inc's marketing.

The incorrect statement in the podcast was that saturated fat is bad. In fact mankind has eaten it for millenia and it was far more healthy than the replacement--Crisco.

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

Amber, it's confusing about canola oil. The oil is made from rapeseed, which has a bad sound, so a variety was given the name canola oil, because it mostly comes from Canada. If the oil comes from organic (meaning non-GMO) rapeseed and is cold-pressed I would consider it a healthy oil. This is hard to find. Perhaps a reader has a good source. Any suggestions?

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I've heard that Canola oil is super-heated to make it shelf stable, so it's basically trans fat. Also, the way they extract the oil uses harmful chemicals. Not sure if this is true, but I've replaced it in my house with extra virgin olive and coconut oils and butter.

Skip, do you know is grapeseed is a healthy oil? I noticed it at Costco and wondered about it.

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

What I've heard about canola oil is that some producers heat it at high temperatures and some do not. If you research the brand you can find this out. I pretty much just stick to olive oil, coconut oil, and butter. I have some tallow, but I have heard that lard and tallow you buy at regular stores has usually been treated to make it shelf stable and is not good for you. So when it comes to lard or tallow be sure you know the source and that it is a good quality. The stuff I use can be refrigerated for a few months or frozen if not planning to use it right away. I think knowing the source of our foods is important no matter what type of food it is- this help to ensure that it is the highest quality possible.

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Does anyone have a peanut butter suggestion that doesn't use hydrogenated oil or trans fat?
My husband and I recently started following your blog and love your posts!

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenni

If you have a food processor you can make your own peanut butter- or pretty much any nut butter. You might need to add a little oil to the mix. You can buy roasted peanuts, or roast them yourself if you find raw peanuts (they are bitter before roasting).

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

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