The Sunday Leader

The Truth About Trans-Fats

By Dr. Harold Gunatillake - Health Writer

Devilled eggs with tuna: fish and eggs contain healthy Omega-3 poly-unsaturated fats

The World Bank has urged Sri Lanka to bring laws to encourage good food processing practices and control trans fats content in food in the fight against rising non-communicable diseases (NCD) like heart attacks. A recently released bank report encourages Sri Lanka to adopt population-based and individual patient-based approaches to reduce unhealthy behaviours in the general population and control heart disease, diabetes, cancers and other NCDs. (LBO — Feb. 24, 2011)
“These efforts, such as more effective legislation on the use of trans fats and tobacco as well as public education to reduce salt intake would help delay the onset of these diseases,” the report said.
This report issued by the World Bank is an eye opener, especially focusing on middle and upper classes of people patronising the super market chains in Colombo and provincial towns. This report should not apply to the people in rural areas, mostly cultivators and farmers who grow their own fresh foods for consumption and the lifestyle is more basic and relaxed, living under difficult conditions.
How do you differentiate between unhealthy Trans-fats and Good Fats?
All fats including, (1) saturated (2) unsaturated — further classified as mono and poly unsaturated, and man made unhealthy (3) trans-fats, are all carbon chains linked with hydrogen atoms on either side of carbon atom. These individual chains are called “fatty acid” chains.
Meat (beef, lamb, pork ham and bacon), lard, dripping fast foods, meat pies, sausages, dairy products (butter), whole milk, cream, cheese, ghee, contain similar fatty acids containing saturated fats. The fats in them are converted to triglycerides — the fat that accumulates in the body are responsible for obesity. They are stable at room temperature and do not become rancid. In addition, triglycerides and cholesterol are bio-synthesized in the liver from saturated fats. They cannot be converted to trans-fat as there are no vacant “C” atoms in the chain. Coconut oil, also a saturated oil, contains medium chain fatty acids (about 12 “C” atoms in one carbon fatty acid chain), and is metabolised in the liver without synthesizing cholesterol and triglycerides.
Fats in coconut oil are mainly in the form of mono-glycerides such as Lauric, Capric and Myristic acids, and considered harmless and not converted to triglycerides in the body. (Mother’s milk also contains Lauric acid which boosts your immune system and has anti-microbial properties).  So, one can explain why coconut fat or oil consumed does not add on weight in spite of consuming large quantities. Today, in the US there are coconut diets recommended for slimming. All other saturated oils and fat help to make cholesterol in the liver and are fattening.

Good Fats

Unsaturated Fats are classified into two major classes — mono and poly-unsaturated fatty acids. Some “C” atoms are without “H” atom links in both mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids: when one pair of “H” atoms is missing in the carbon fatty acid chain, then you refer to such carbon chains as mono-unsaturated fatty acids, while when more than one pair of hydrogen atoms are missing, then you refer to them as poly-unsaturated fatty acids. Popular examples of mono-unsaturated oils are olive, avocado, peanut and many other oils.
Poly-unsaturated fats are further classified as Omega-6 type and Omega-3 type. These are essential fatty acids (EFA). Your body is incapable of producing the EFAs; they need to be derived from food.
The main fatty acid in Omega-6 is Linoleic Acid (LA). It is found in sun-flower, cotton seed, corn, sesame, soybean, evening primrose oil, vegetable seed oils, grape seed oil and others.
Mainly vegetable seed oil and corn seed oil are used to make trans-fat through a process of adding hydrogen vapor under pressure. This is referred to as ‘hydrogenation’ of oils. Trans-fats are also referred to as ‘man-made fats.’
Omega-3 fatty acids: in the plant foods Omega-3 fatty acids are usually in the form of the shorter chain Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA). Marine Omega-3 in fish is present as longer chain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Rich sources are: mustard seed oil, canola oil, wheat-germ oil, soybeans, baked beans, red kidney beans, mushrooms, green beans, spinach, leeks, lettuce, seaweed, mustard, cumin and fenugreek seeds, flax seed, nuts and legumes, sea food and fish.
EPA and DHA are important to prevent and treat heart disease, reduce inflammation, and prevent cancer.
These oils lower the bad LDL cholesterol, and elevate the good HDL cholesterol, and also help brain growth and development
Among the popular good sources of Omega-3 oils from fish, are sardines, herrings, mackerel, bluefish, tuna, salmon, pilchard, butterfish and pompano. Organ meats such as brain and bone marrow, lean meat and eggs are other sources.
Foods fortified with Omega 3, such as eggs, milk, yoghurt and bread, as well as fish-oil supplements, are other sources.

Bad Fats – Trans-fats

This comes from a Latin word, meaning Trans, which is ‘across.’
The body cannot differentiate between foods with trans-fats and normal saturated fats. Our cells become saturated with this artificial fat taken in the diet when consumed excessively and replaces the saturated fat. This interferes with the normal metabolic activities of the cells, and toxic material may accumulate within cells and you can become sick. These fats also harm the immune system and may lead to cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases.
One of the worst foods consumed by most families is margarine, a trans-fat made from poly-unsaturated vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, soybean, corn, among others.  Poly-unsaturated fats become rancid at room temperature within days, due to its unstable quality. They have to be hydrogenated to be preserved to increase the shelf life. This process of hydrogenation preserves and solidifies the oils. This man modified oil is referred to as a trans-fat, as mentioned above, which is hardly available in nature, other than in small quantities in meat.
The first process in the manufacture of margarine is the extraction of the oils from the seeds, and this is done using petroleum-based solvents at very high temperatures, as much as 160 degrees celcius. Similar solvents like benzene, known to cause cancer was found in Perrier mineral water and it went off the market. Perrier waters are now available, perhaps without cancer producing solvent content.
The oil goes through many processes – neutralization, de-gumming, deodorization, emulsification, hydrogenation, etc.
Nickel, a metal that used to cause cancer is used as a catalyst in the process.
When margarine goes through all these processes, it is nothing but natural goodness. The label carried is “poly-unsaturated and cholesterol free, natural goodness.”
Hydrogenation ruins the nutritional value of vegetable oils! The purpose of hydrogenation is to solidify oil, so that it can be made to resemble real foods such as butter. This process improves the spread-ability, texture, “mouth feel,” and makes it simple to use immediately taken out from the refrigerator, unlike butter needing to be kept out to warm up for hours before it is soft enough to spread.
Beware of the health benefits derived from margarines made from olive oil and others. Olive oil per se is good and not when converted to  trans-fat to make it look like butter.
Today people eat more food made with hydrogenated oils and not fresh vegetables, fruits, and other whole foods, and this unhealthy eating is causing many health problems.
Most of the trans-fats in the diet come from commercially prepared baked goods, margarines as mentioned earlier, snack foods, and processed foods, along with French fries, and other fried foods prepared in restaurants and fast food franchises.
Trans-fats are worse for cholesterol levels than saturated fats because they raise bad LDH and lower good HDL. They also fire inflammation, an over-activity of the immune system that has been implicated in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
Even small amounts of trans-fat in the diet can have harmful health effects.
For every extra 2 percent of calories from trans-fat daily — about the amount in a medium order of fast food French fries — the risk of coronary heart disease increases by 23 percent.
All Sri Lankans eating foods cooked in oil should understand that the oil being used in most cooking would be the popular vegetable oils. Coconut oil, though the most suitable for Asian cooking, is used sparingly due to the fear of having high cholesterol. These vegetable oils, extracted from sun flower; corn, etc., are poly-unsaturated Omega-6 type of oils. These oils boiled at high temperatures become trans-fats. Moreover when the cooked oils are used repeatedly to save on costs, more free radicals are produced in the oil and make it worse for your health.
Just look at the way-side cooking places along any public road in the towns and suburbs in Sri Lanka: hopper outlets have become very popular and our people enjoy eating them at dusk till morning hours.  Other foods relished by our people are the rottis, godas, thosai, wadei, and others, all cooked in fried oil which turns into trans-fat at high temperatures.
Then, there are those pastry food shops opened up close to schools. Every food item in the show cases displayed is fried in trans-fat, including the baked cakes. Most school going children leave home at about 6 am on an empty stomach, travel by vans to schools far away to the main towns known to be having better schools. By 8 am most children are seen in these pastry outlets for their breakfast. Some even have their lunch until the vans arrive for transport back home. These children have no time to play ball as the tuition masters wait at home preparing to give tuition invariably on all subjects.
This is the future generation we are creating — living on hot foods with no play. No wonder obesity among school children has become the worst health problem and needs to be looked into.
So, does the increasing incidence of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic diseases in our paradise, surprise you?


•    Educate through the mass media on health topics.
•    Health subjects including nutrition, to be incorporated in school curriculum.
•    Provide guidelines to the parents for foods to be included in school children’s lunch boxes.
•    Frequent checks on foods sold by school tuck-shops.
•    People to read the labels of processed foods they purchase from the super markets and elsewhere. Beware of purchasing packeted frozen foods from the super-market refrigerators.
•    All cooking oils have added trans-fat to increase their shelf life. Stick to coconut oil for all cooking purposes, containing no added fats.
•    Purchase your vegetables fresh from the vegetable markets.
•    Purchase fresh chicken from outlets in the main cities. They are frozen but have no added Trans–fat.
•    Lowering salt content in cooked food and daily exercise, are other important aspects to consider in your “Health Package.”

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