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Dr. Kestner: This year’s award for most sinister dietary fat goes to…

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As far as I know, there is no award ceremony for dietary fats. Maybe there should be. Some forms of dietary fat should be recognized for best supporting roles … many vegetable fats support necessary processes in our body. Maybe a production award for the kinds of fat that work behind the scenes contributing to our immune system to keep us healthy. And of course, an award for most notorious villain would go to those fats that create havoc in our bodies and lead to disease and early deaths. The nominees would likely be saturated and trans-fats.

Not all fats are bad. Our bodies actually require some types of dietary fat for the production of all sorts of important cellular components, hormones, neurotransmitters, energy stores and insulation components. But over-consumption of some types of fat leads to many forms of disease and health challenges.

There has been a lot of press lately about trans-fats. Trans-fats have been in our diet since the turn of the century. Proctor and Gamble started marketing hydrogenated cottonseed oil in 1911. The product they called crystallized cottonseed oil was originally used for making candles. When household electricity became commonplace and snuffed out the candle market, Procter and Gamble began selling the hydrogenated cottonseed oil as food and shortened the name to Crisco. Crisco has been reformulated several times since then.

The use of trans-fats has increased significantly in recent years as the consumption of snack foods and convenience items has soared.

Only in the last decade has the public begun to widely question the use of trans-fats. It seems that everyone now wants the food industry and major restaurant chains to work harder to limit or eliminate the use of trans-fats.

What is a trans-fat? There’s a clue in the word trans. Trans means to change or alter. A trans-fat is a fat molecule that has been molecularly altered or transformed. Trans-fats are created when food producers turn liquid fats (vegetable oil for example) into a semi-solid fat (such as margarine or shortening) by aerating them with hydrogen gas (hydrogenation). The hydrogen atoms bond to the fat molecules and a different molecule is formed.

An estimated 40 percent of the items on your supermarket shelf contain artificially produced trans-fats. That means if you exclude the produce section and meat aisle, most of the foods in the “middle aisles” of the market contain trans-fats.

Why do we care? Because research indicates trans-fats increase bad cholesterol (LDL). In addition to being suspected of clogging arteries, trans-fats have been implicated in a host of other health problems, including diabetes and breast cancer.

Obviously, food manufacturers are anxious to find research that dispels the notion that trans-fats are causing us harm. There are some food scientists that claim research involving trans-fats has been misinterpreted. (Recalling that tobacco industry scientists vigorously claimed that tobacco was harmless raises doubts about the veracity of insider research.)

Some consumers are suspicious of trans-fats primarily because they view them as a mutation of a natural product. Like so many situations, consumers are caught in the middle. Government agencies and health sources strongly recommend that we restrict the consumption of certain unhealthy ingredients such as trans-fats, yet manufacturers are allowed to produce foods that are chock full of the suspect ingredients. The more we rely on convenience foods and pre-packaged and restaurant items, the more questionable additives we ingest. Many critics of the current choices offered by food manufacturers claim that we are contributors to our own poisoning by continuing to buy the products.

Since 2006, manufacturers have been required to identify the amount of trans-fats on the label. Most recommendations urge consumers to sharply reduce the amount of dietary trans-fats to 1 percent of our daily calories. Since a gram of fat contains 9 calories, that means most of us should have less than 2 grams of trans-fat per day. You are probably eating a lot more than that.

By reading nutrition labels you can learn which foods are healthy and which are questionable.

Next week: some surprising news about an ancient treatment. You won’t want to miss it!

Dr. Mark Kestner

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