A couple of days a week I work out of shared office space in Cambridge, MA that is part of a multi-floor incubator/start-up facility. One of the benefits in the office is the food stocked in the kitchens – including lots of healthy things, like fresh fruits, nuts, dried fruit, bagels, etc….. Now not all the food is purely healthy…. They have sodas and M&Ms, etc. But today I did a double-take, when I saw that the Drakes Apple FruitPies had 8 grams of Trans Fats per serving.
For those of you not familiar with Trans Fats, they are chemically created by taking naturally occurring oils and heating them in the presence of a metal catalyst (like nickel or platinum) to add extra hydrogens to the oil. This process creates “partially hydrogenated oils” which are solid at room temperature and easier to bake with etc. Chemically modifying the oils also causes the naturally occurring double bonds within the oil’s carbon backbone to rearrange so that the hydrogens on the same side of the carbon chain (see A bel0w), get flipped around so that the hydrogens are on opposite sides (See B below)
A: Cis – Fat . . . . . .B: Trans-Fat
So why does this matter. Numerous studies have shown that Trans Fats increase blood levels of triglycerides and lower good cholesterol (HDL) — both of which increase risks for cardiovascular disease and death. The biochemical reasons for this are not clear, but it seems to me that Trans Fats are acting like a metabolic poison.
The process that keeps so-called foods that contain Trans Fats from spoiling, is the same that messes up human physiology: In Trans Fat “foods,” microorganisms that normally cause food to spoil can’t digest the trans fats, so the food doesn’t spoil. In the human body, our natural molecular processes for breaking down fats can’t easily “eat” Trans Fats either – so it literally gums up the works. An analogy might be if you put your shoes on the wrong feet and tried to run. You could move, but it would be awkward, inefficient, and sooner or later something connected to your feet would start complaining and eventually break. It’s not that the shoes doen’t look like shoes, but they don’t fit the feet so things don’t work right. Trans fats look like oils (just like the oil in your car looks like oil), but trans fats are not the shape of oils your body’s cells are expecting, so problems arise when they have to deal with them.
Now if you don’t like this situation, (and crave those snack cakes), don’t blame your body’s cells – they didn’t ask for the Trans Fats – you’re the one who decided to eat them – your cells are doing their best to figure out what to do with them. But unfortunately they aren’t equipped to easy break them down – they’d rather have real food, not Trans Fats.