Partially hydro-what?

Most people cannot even pronounce the word hydrogenated. So why do so many common foods we eat contain it?

Kelsey Kudak

Unless you are a vegan, a glance at the ingredients in the food in your pantry can be frightening. That is, frightening if you know what’s good for you. Among the ingredients of heavily processed foods and baked goods are partially hydrogenated oils that are used by companies to produce longer-lasting products and an inexpensive substitute for better-quality oils. We’ve all seen it on the label, and I realize the product is no surprise in ingredient lists.

Partially hydrogenated oils are appealing because they have a creamy texture and are created rather inexpensively. According to transfatfree.com, vegetable oil is heated and placed under pressure in a vat with hydrogen and a metal catalyst (usually nickel). After several hours, the hydrogen and carbon combine, thereby changing the molecular structure causing the oil to harden and produce a butter-like consistency. Afterward, it is filtered and bleached and voila! We have a cooking product that lasts oodles of time on the shelf and is actually closer to plastic than its original form. While I can’t speak for the rest of the populous, I’d rather my food become moldy after a month than see it defy petrification.

When the oil was introduced in the ’70s, companies began substituting expensive oils for this processed counterpart. But like lead paint, all good things must experience their unhealthy end. Instead of lead poisoning, hydrogenated oils contain trans fat, a component that changes cell composition and increases a risk of heart disease. Though fats are important and essential to our body’s protein reactions, the process of hydrogenation destroys all the healthy omega fatty acids the body would have otherwise used. Because of this and the molecular change during hydrogenation that creates trans fat, we are consuming a substance unusable by our bodies. Once consumed, the body reacts to the fat by changing the composition of our cell membranes to a rigid texture exactly the way vegetable oil takes on the consistency of margarine during hydrogenation. It gathers in and clogs arteries and elevates HDL (“bad” cholesterol) and reduces LDL (its “good” counterpart). The National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine concluded in 2002 that there is no safe level of trans fat for the body. The Harvard School of Public Health reported that an elimination of the partially hydrogenated oil could prevent 30,000-100,000 deaths annually.

Why then, are we not alarmed by contents in the brownie and snack mixes in our cupboards? Are we merely apathetic or uneducated instead? Or more likely still, are restaurants unwilling to make changes in budget? But even what we don’t know can hurt us.

New York understood this when the state approved an amendment to phase the use of trans fat out of restaurants entirely. This approval happened in December 2006 and is to be implemented entirely by July 2008. Following Denmark’s similar example set in 2003, the state asked restaurants to stop serving food containing trans fats and other chemically modified ingredients. Realizing the risks and the compromises of health partially hydrogenated oils produce, the state began an educational campaign that pushed the use of healthy sunflower and olive oils. According to nyc.gov, by 2008, restaurants are expected to have less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, if any at all. Recently, Philadelphia has begun to follow suit with a similar implementation set for the same year.

Though it is an admirable lifestyle, I am not suggesting we all become vegan. The truth of the matter is that the college community is constantly spread thin for time. Looking for an easier way to eat on the run, the habit is to fall back on processed and packaged foods – generally the ones with the highest content of hydrogenated oils. Concerned for my own cells I took a look through my food, and was surprised by the results. As a lacto-ovo vegetarian and addict of fruits and vegetables, I still found several of the products in my cupboard had components of hydrogenation.

Like asbestos and lead paint, the nation again needs to acknowledge another of the dangers we have chemically created for ourselves. Following the legislative example of New York would be one way to combat the fat, but paying attention to the ingredients of our own food is yet a better one.

Kelsey Kudak welcomes comments at [email protected]