Trans Fats: Metabolic Poisons

Summary
Trans fats are metabolic poisons, and there are no safe levels. This article explains why.
[4600 words]

Eric Armstrong
TreeLight.com/Health

Before we dive into the subject of how trans fats do the damage they do, there are several "good news" items to report:

Top-Ranked At Google
The article I wrote in 1998, What's Wrong with Partially Hydrogenated Oils?, was reported to be number one in Google's rankings at the end of 2002. That is really gratifying, because it means the word is getting out. (Google's rankings are determined by the number of people linking to the page, so it's both quite an honor and indicative of very wide readership.) Here are the December, 2002 results of the Google Search.

Note:
Several readers chided me on not including more scientific references and exact explanations. However, I suspect that, had the article done that, it would not have received such wide readership. So it has served its intended function as a "warning bell" that alerts people to the dangers. Once alerted, there are a variety of ways to gain the information. But it takes that initial awareness to keep from skipping past the relevant articles at the newsstand!
 
More Media Attention
In addition to a TV news broadcast on the subject at the beginning of the year, the San Francisco Chronicle has run several articles on the subject. (See the references at the end for pointers.)

In a very real way, journalism is the only real guardian we have against the untrammeled excesses of capitalism. That role is properly filled by government, but with elections going to the most well-funded, the effect is to have the foxes in charge of the chicken coop! With more and more newspapers owned by conglomerates, even their voice is becoming suspect. But articles like this one are good to see, and a darn good reason for subscribing to the paper!

New FDA Ruling
Although the article I wrote first appeared in 1998, I first became exposed to the information in 1995. (The information was available in publicly accessible form as early as 1990, and it was in scientific journals for decades before that. But even when the material had been published where a layman could find it, it took 5 years before my quest for health led me to it.

Apparently, the information became available to the FDA about the same time (1995), because the initiated a process that took seven years, in all, culminating in the passage of a law in the summer of 2002 that will require all food processors to declare trans fats in their food labels, in the same way that carbohydrates, proteins, and saturated fats are now listed. (That change is due to go into effect in the Spring of 2003, but is in danger of derailed by political lobbying from "food" producers.)

Note:
An Associated Press story by Emily Gersema printed in San Jose Mercury News (16 March 2003, p. 10A), reports that "Some consumer groups, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have been lobbying the (FDA) since 1993 to approve a trans-fat label and complain that the process has taken far too long".

That is incredibly good news for the consumer because, frankly, the potential for evil inherent in corporate capitalism is nothing short of scary. The environmental malfeasance of polluters and tobacco producers, the financial malfeasance of corporate giants like Enron and Worldcom, and the nutritional malfeasance of companies that put partially hydrogenated oils in their products, despite the scientific evidence, all point unfailingly to a total lack of conscience in corporate culture -- what no one individual would willingly do to another, a corporation will do gladly and repeatedly, for the sake of profit.

So it was with some trepidation that I originally wrote What's Wrong with Partially Hydrogenated Oils?, knowing that as soon as consumers began to wise up to the scam enough to make a dent in profits, the companies would simply find ways to change the name of the ingredients, because that would be cheaper than any other alternative.

But the FDA ruling has permanently laid that fear to rest, at least. No matter what ingredient they choose to use, or what they call it, the bottom line is that they have to list the amount of trans fats the product contains. That makes the choice simple: Don't buy unless the percentage of trans fats is zero.

Follow Up
July 9, 2003
Today the news media reported that the law has finally been passed, and food producers will be required to list amount of trans fats right under amount of saturated fats on their nutrition labels. The bad news is that they have until 2006 to comply. But the very next day I found a Lays Classic potato chip proudly listing "Trans Fat 0g" on it's label. Expect foods that can make that claim to change their labels very quickly. Foods that can't (read "poisoned foods") will take until the very last day of 2005 to do it. So the rule for buying will now become very, very simple:
   If it doesn't say "Trans Fat 0g", don't buy it!

Follow up
Feb 18, 2005
Even if it DOES say "Trans Fat 0g", READ THE INGREDIENTS.
It turns out that the labeling law isn't sufficient to completely eliminate trans fats from foods. Food products can claim "0 percent" and still contain up to 2.2 grams per serving. For an explanation, see Trans Fat Labeling is Nearly Useless.

No Safe Levels

The most important finding to have come out of the research on trans fats in the last couple of decades is this:

There are NO safe levels of trans fats.

Read. Repeat. Emblazon in your memory. There are no safe levels. None. Nada. Zip. It makes sense, when you think about it. A metabolic poison is a metabolic poison is a.... It's the same with cyanide or arsenic. There are no safe levels. They're just bad.

Why Trans Fats Are Bad

The real goal of this article is to explain why trans fats are so bad. In What's Wrong with Partially Hydrogenated Oils?, we used the analogy of guards on a watch tower. In this article, you'll see how true that analogy really is -- how polyunsaturated fats work in the cell wall to keep the bad guys out and let the good guys in, and how trans fats sabotage cellular function, allowing allergens, carcinogens, and other toxins to pass. But will start with an analysis of how trans fats make you fat.

Trans Fats and Obesity

The article, Obesity in the U.S., states that:

"...when you eat carbohydrates your body turns it into glycogen which is dumped
into your bloodstream....simple (carbohydrates), like in Coke, get into your
bloodstream through the walls of your cheeks and tongue before you even swallow..."

"Your body can't handle much sugar in your blood, so the pancreas begins pumping
out insulin which tells your fat cells to absorb the blood-sugar, to "load up" -- to fatten
up. This happens rapidly. Minutes after drinking a can of soda or beer, the fat is going directly onto your thighs and elsewhere. You're drinking yourself fat."

That statement is most certainly true. The article goes on to say:

"It was a great coup for the breakfast cereal industry to convince
Americans in the 70's that their product was health food.

Actually, though, they accomplished that feat in the late 40's and early 50's, with the advent of television commercials. (I grew up on that crap, and was skinny as a rail. (The sugar can produce hyperactive, skinny people too.)

"Soda pop, fruit juice and breakfast cereal are the main reasons child obesity
has taken off in the last thirty years."

Partially true. However, as noted, my childhood addiction to sugar produced a skeletal frame with virtually nothing in the way of either muscle or fat. So the high sugar content in many products is only one of the reasons for obesity. Other reasons include:

The article continues:

"Here's what my studying has led me to believe: EATING FAT DOES NOT MAKE YOU FAT. Eating an excess of carbohydrates does."

Again, that is a true statement -- but only if trans fats are not included in the mix. Because assuredly, trans fats do make you fat. But, to go on:

"Saturated fat, completely contrary to the conventional wisdom which has utterly
demonized it, is the healthy fat. Lard. Butter. Nuts. This is the fat our bodies
evolved to eat. It's completely natural, unmodified by technology, and the
consumption of which is absolutely necessary for survival."

That's close to being true. It's a bit overstated with respect to saturated fat being "healthy". But saturated fat is not unhealthy, at least. You burn it for fuel, and when you're done burning that, you keep on burning your own fat. From that list, nuts and butter are ideal. But the list leaves out coconut oil, which may well be the most healthy fat on the planet. (See Coconut Oil: Miracle Medicine and Diet Pill.)

But, and here is the key, you burn fat for fuel only:

  1. If the carbs in your system hasn't generated a ton of insulin, and
  2. If the accumulated effects of trans fat poisoning haven't created insulin resistance, which
    keeps insulin circulating for much longer than it ordinarily would.

The article also has one significant error:

"Saturated fat only becomes unhealthy if you fry it and the oil is modified
by the high heat."

That statement is not really true. It is free unsaturated fats (fats that are not bound to other molecules) which become modified by high heat processing, producing trans fats. So roasting nuts: not bad. Refining a vegetable oil: really bad.

Note:
There are no "pure" fats. All are a mixture. So some trans fats are generated when heating a saturated fat, just as some carcinogens are created when grilling a steak. But the amounts are extremely small. Basically, frying in lard or coconut oil isn't too bad. You get lots of flavor, with little harm. Butter is best of all, in fact, because it's the shortest saturated fat there is. So it's easily burned for energy, and very flavorful.

This statement, on the other hand, is dead on accurate:

"If you are overweight, you are compounding your health problems by restricting
saturated fat intake and at the same time probably replacing healthy saturated fat
with modified hydrogenated oils in "low-fat" foods that are slowly killing you."

That says it about as well as it can be said. Note that it is the hydrogenated oils which are killing you.

The problem with french fries, in particular, are that they are fried in partially hydrogenated oils, which contain high levels of trans fats. In addition, partially hydrogenated oils are in damn near everything at the supermarket and in the fast food restaurants. When you start reading labels, you get a rude awakening. But until Spring of 2003, looking for "trans fats" won't show you anything.

Finally, the article says:

"Long term effects on the human body are unknown, but there are increasing
links to stroke and heart disease."

In fact, there is damn good evidence linking partially hydrogenated oils (via trans fats) to every degenerative disease prevalent in industrial society, as well as to obesity. Before we can get to the full explanation, we'll have to look at how fatty acids are supposed to work.

Trans Fats and Cell Walls

Here is a diagram of a triglyceride:

    +---------
____|__   ____
    |  \_/
    +---------

The two dashed lines at the top and bottom are saturated fats. The one in the middle with the "kink" in it is an unsaturated fat. That little kink is where a hydrogen molecule s is missing, which causes the fat molecule to "bend" at that location.

At the left end is phosphate molecule. That's the part that the three lipids connect to, and which "anchors" the triglyceride in the cell wall. The phosphate molecule and the saturated fats on the ends are inert. They're merely structural. It's the unsaturated fatty acid in the middle that does the real work.

The unsaturated fatty acid in the middle is the most important part of the whole thing, because it's the chemically active part. The missing hydrogen means there is an unbound electron, so it just loves to lock on to a protein swinging by that is missing one. (With polyunsaturated fatty acids, several free electrons are present, so you actually get a little "electron cloud".)

Note:
Johanna Budwig addresses the quantum mechanics of fatty acids and proteins in her nearly unreadable little booklet, Flax Oil as a True Aid. In it, she points out that proteins are like the negative pole of a battery, while fatty acids are the positive pole. The free electrons in that tiny little "battery" are, in essence, the energy of life.

The free electron(s) in the triglyceride are responsible for chemical interactions which cause nutrients and even oxygen to be transported into the cell. It is here that insulin binds with the cell in order to do its work.

When a free unsaturated fatty acid is subject to high heat, lots of horrible things happen to it. Bonds are broken, shifted, twisted, cross-linked, and denatured. In other words, the potential for chemical activity is broken.

The phosphate end is unharmed though, so the resulting triglyceride can still be built into the cell wall. There, it is quite literally a metabolic poison. Like infiltrators posing as guards on the fortress wall, they keep out allies and let in invaders.

Where are the Studies?

The exact mechanism by which a faulty fatty acid can become incorporated into a phospholipid has not yet been established. (Research which uncovers that mechanism may well lead to a Nobel prize, because it has the potential to explain a lot of human suffering.) But the role trans fats play in cellular misfunction can be deduced from these facts:

  • At no time in human history, before the advent of hydrogenation and other oil refining processes, has the human body had to manufacture a defense against the onslaught of prodigious numbers of trans fats.
     
  • Insulin resistance and obesity have become a plague in our time, despite an ever-increasing emphasis on diet and exercise.
     
  • The rate of allergies, cancer, and auto-immune disorders has skyrocketed as well (a subject which will be covered more fully later in this article.)
     
  • These facts remain true, despite enormous advances in science and medicine, largely because the medical community has been focused almost totally on dealing with "external invaders" like bacteria and viruses. (They are a victim of their own success, in that regard. The early 20th century saw incredible advances in health and longevity as a result of that approach -- and of the sanitation and health regulations which resulted from the new awareness. The unfortunate side effect of that success, however, has been to look at every problem as though it must have the same kind of cause.)

The case for calling trans fats "metabolic poisons" is pretty easy to make. Arsenic works by binding to oxygen receptors, which prevents oxygen from getting to the cells. Hence the blue color of arsenic victims. Cyanide works in a similar fashion, as does any other poison -- it interferes with bodily functions and prevents them from being carried out.

Trans fats do very much the same thing, only more slowly. They're kind of like smoking cigarettes. One won't kill you, but the accumulated harm is inevitable.

But in addition to simply preventing nutrients from reaching the cell, the twisted cell-wall fragments also pass through substances they would ordinarily reject -- among them allergens, carcinogens, and other toxins. We'll deal with that subject momentarily.

Trans Fats and the Immune System

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are missing two or even three hydrogen molecules. The free electrons they supply form a microscopic "electron cloud" which are the energy source that drive brain cell function and nervous system. They're also the force behind the cellular hormones that control bodily functions, as well as the source of energy with which components of the immune system pulverize invaders.

When a spark jumps a gap in a spark plug, that energy burst consists of free electrons. When a nuerotransmitter jumps a nerve synapse in the body or in the brain, and when the immune system uses free electrons to pulverize an enemy invader, the electrons that powered those cells came from polyunsaturated fatty acids.

The ability of fatty acids' free electrons to reach out and bind to an oxygen molecule is also responsible for the function of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen to cell, as well for the transport of oxygen and other nutrients into the cell. It's also the way in which the body's hormonal messengers carry out their operations -- and one of those hormonal messengers is insulin.

When you consider that high heat processing of free oils produces trans fats, and that these fats are then built into the cell wells, the link to degenerative diseases becomes fairly easy to see.

When a damaged immune system can't do its job, diseases spread. When a damaged cell wall passes a carcinogen, cancer can flourish. When allergens pass, you get allergic responses and inflammation. When an allergen is passed that is similar to the body's natural proteins, the allergic response that results can set off a chain reaction that causes the body to attack itself, producing an auto-immune disorder.

Trans Fats, Insulin, and Growth Hormone

When insulin cannot bind with the cell, the insulin stays circulating in the blood. Half an hour after eating, the body measures blood sugar levels to figure out if it needs to generate a second spike of insulin. In a healthy body, that mechanism would be perfect. But if cells are unable to react to the insulin that is already there, then a second burst can be created even though enough insulin is already present.

Now there is an excess of insulin in the bloodstream, greedily sucking sugar out of it at every opportunity. As the cells which are capable of handling it free up, they get stuffed again. And
again. Eventually, there is no blood sugar, but insulin is still present, because too much was generated. Result? Ravenous hunger, low energy, and light headedness. You then have to eat, and you have to eat carbs to satisfy the gnawing in your gut.

The long-term effect is lots of carbs, lots of overeating, and a total inability to generate growth hormone (which is only released in the absence of insulin). Without growth hormone, less muscle is created, so there is less of an opportunity to burn the fat!

The whole process is a series of vicious circles, fed and led by producers of ingestible substances who have had this science before them for at least 2 decades now. Sooner or later, they will suffer the same consequences as the tobacco industry -- depending on how long it takes for this information to spread.

Trans Fats, Allergies, and Auto-Immune Diseases

If sugar and trans fats together account for obesity, then MSM (or it's lack) and trans fats account for allergies and auto-immune diseases. Since we've already covered trans fats, a short explanation of MSM is in order here:

MSM stands for Methyl-Suylfonyl-Methane. It is the only naturally occurring form of sulfur, and it is found in every animal and plant tissue. It is also the only ingestible form of sulfur. MSM is no more toxic than water, and should be taken in the same amounts as Vitamin C. Like Vitamin C, MSM is highly volatile, so it rarely survives food processing and storage. As a result, it is generally deficient in the ordinary diet. MSM is reported to "paint the stomach" in a way that prevents the "leaky gut syndrome" that is prevalent in allergy sufferers. It also acts as an antihistamine (like Vitamin C), and it is responsible for flexibility and healing with flexible tissue, rather than scar tissue.

The gist of the issue with respect to allergies is this:

There are layers to the allergen-defense system:

  1. Symptom Relief
    Antihistamine nutrients like MSM and Vitamin C.
     
  2. First Aid
    Fasting. Helps immediately by removing the allergens, and secondarily by giving the body a chance to purge the malfunctioning cells and replace them with better ones. (A process which will work infinitely better if the body has been trans fat free for a significant period of time before the fast.)
     
  3. Diet. (Avoiding the foods that lay the foundation.)
    Statistically, dairy products are the most common cause, but soybeans or other foods could be the culprit in any given case.
     
  4. Stomach Lining.
    It is the "leaky gut" which admits food allergens in the first place. MSM and essential fatty acids
    are key, here, to create strong cell walls in the lining of the intestines.
     
  5. Cell wall integrity
    Here, intake of essential fatty acids (and avoidance of trans fats) is critical. In particular, totally
    avoid:
    1. Anything with the words "partially hydrogenated" on the label.
    2. Commercially fried foods.
    3. Refined and processed oils.

Of course, it is a good idea to take the entire antioxidant complex, because each element acts synergistically with all the others. (They back each other up, with one putting the other one together
after they break down doing their job.) That means taking beta carotene, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, selenium -- a trace mineral for glutathione, which goes into making glutathione peroxidase to rebuild Vitamin C, especially in the eye, as well as MSM and lipoic acid -- a sulfur-containing ingredient that stimulates glutathione production

That formula gives you maximum protection from the allergens that enter your system. However, to keep allergens out in the first place, you want to combine Omega-3 fatty acids (found in deep water fish or unrefined oils) mixed with sulfur-based amino acids (cabbage-family vegetables
and/or cultured dairy products (yogurt, cottage cheese). Kimchi, for example, is one recipe that combines a poly unsaturated oil (sesame oil and sesame seeds) with sulfur-containing vegetables.

This powerful mixture does a lot:

Trans Fats and Diabetes

Diabetes is essentially an "insulin resistance" condition. The cause of the condition lies in the
heat-processed fats and oils we have been consuming for decades in this society. Any intelligent
protocol for the management of diabetes must take into account those facts.

As explained, the chemistry is fairly simple: boomerang-shaped polyunsaturated fatty acids are twisted by heat. They're straightened out, bond-shifted, and cross-linked so that the "business" end (the active end) is worthless.

The biology is equally simple. The stationary end of the fatty acid can still attach to a phosphate group to make phospholipids -- which are incorporated into the cell walls.

Millions of years of evolution have never prepared the body to recognize and avoid the transmogrified fatty acids. So they act, quite literally, as metabolic poisons. In the same way that
cyanide connects with hemoglobin and prevents oxygen from doing so, these things are build into the cell walls, preventing the chemically-active versions from doing so.

There are many more cells, though, and there are always some good fats among the bad ones (and vice versa), so it takes a long time to see serious effects. One effect is clearly visible though, since every cell requires fatty acids to function, you eat six times more than you would with high-quality fats in the diet. Hence, you gain weight.

What Can I Do About Trans Fats Already in My System?

In addition to transporting oxygen and nutrients to and through the cell walls, are the "active" parts of
the brain, nervous system, hemoglobin, hormones, and immune system. It is the electrons they supply (in the right time, at the right place) that are responsible for synapses firing, hormones communicating, destruction of invaders by immune cells, etc. So it's clear that good health requires eliminating the bad fats and supplying the good ones.

But, as Rob and Jesse Moore wrote:

"I am now ceasing to eat partially hydrogenated oils, but now how do I
remove the culprits that are already in my body? Will a standard fast do it?
If so, how severe and how long? ...

The good news is that *every* soft tissue in your body regenerates every two years, so in that time frame you should be pretty well free and clear. Fasting will definitely speed up the process, and is highly recommended for most health conditions (excluding cancer) in any case. By far the best book on the subject can be obtained from Amazon: Fasting and Eating for Health.

What About Those Fast "Food" Restaurants?

Finally, there is the matter of fast food. I live with the fact that partially hydrogenated oils are in any bread I get from them, so I try to limit what I eat. (It will probably take a long time before I can find a fast food producer who doesn't use it.) But definitely avoid french fries, no matter what -- and anything else deep fried, like chicken or fish from such places. Fast food producers deep fry in partially hydrogenated oil, because it's cheap and doesn't smell so bad -- but you'd be better off smoking a pack of cigarettes.

The unfortunate truth is the old method of deep frying in beef tallow not only gave better flavor, it was *much* less bad for you. Sure, it contained lots of saturated fat. But you could burn that, if you didn't eat too much.

But somewhere along the line consumers found out that vegetable oils are healthier (they are until they're cooked), so restaurants got into the business of claiming they were frying in vegetable oil -- when in fact they are frying in *partially hydrogenated* vegetable oils, which contain the metabolic poisons known as trans fats.

Note:
The pending law suit against fast food chains, accusing them of causing one person's obesity, is currently the subject of late-night talk show jokes. But like the law suits against the tobacco companies, the "smoking gun" will eventually prove to be their undoing. As with the tobacco companies, the "smoking gun" will consist of the scientific evidence, their knowledge of it, and the fact that they refused to act on it, for the sake of profit.

More Information

For more articles on this subject, see:

Articles by Kim Severenson that have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle:

In addition, several readers sent in pointers to more scholarly expositions:

Recommended books, available from Amazon.com:

There are other books in the book list, as well, but those above are the most easily read and informative.

Copyright © 2002, 20008 by Eric Armstrong. All rights reserved.
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