Putting the “Trans” in Trans Fat

I never really knew what a trans fat was until I took biochemistry last year. I knew that a lot of people wanted to ban them, as New York is on the verge of doing. But I really had no idea what, exactly, they were. If you’re curious, too, read on!

To start off, fats are part of a macro-nutrient group called lipids. Macro-nutrients are the big nutrients we need to stay alive: carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids. Your body breaks these down further via digestion, like dismantling a Lego house.

(c) OpenClipartVectors, pixabay.com

(c) OpenClipartVectors, pixabay.com

There are two types of lipids: fats and oils. Both, however, are made of the same building blocks, which are fatty acids. Fatty acids are strings of organic molecules.

The fatty acids can be either saturated or unsaturated. Both kinds start with a backbone, of sorts – a string of carbon atoms. One carbon atom can connect to (or bind with) four other atoms, or have double or even triple bonds with one type of atom and other bonds with different ones, to create a molecule. Think of the carbon atom as a Lego that has four different places where other Legos can connect.

Hydrogen is an atom that can only bind to one thing. Because of this, hydrogen is the perfect filler for any empty, unbonded parts of the carbon atom.

Still with me?

A saturated fatty acid one that is a carbon backbone with hydrogen at every single bonding site that isn’t attached to the next carbon in the chain. Because the molecule is evenly bonded with hydrogen all the way around, we call it saturated, meaning it cannot possibly take on any more hydrogen.  They sort of lay flat and even, since they’re balanced, so that other saturated fatty acids can stack around them, creating dense layers of fatty acids. This is why saturated fatty acids – fats – are solid at room temperature. Think of butter or Crisco, for example.

Oils, on the other hand, are made up of unsaturated fatty acids. This means that those carbon atoms along the backbone are not all evenly bonded with hydrogens. They have double bonds in places, with other types of atoms. Double bonds sort of make the molecule form a weird shape – they pull on the carbon in one direction and create kink in the molecule. Unsaturated fatty acids don’t line up neatly, and so you can’t fit as many in when you try to “stack” them. Since there are fewer fatty acids to clump together, these are liquid at room temperature. They can’t hold a shape. Think of olive oil, vegetable oil, etc.

Here’s what saturated and unsaturated fatty acids look like drawn out:

(c) Washington University

(c) Washington University

So, unsaturated fatty acids, or oils, are much healthier for us, simply because they contain fewer fatty acids.

Scientists figured this out a long time ago, and so the public put a lot of social pressure put on the food industry to stop using fats in foods, so that the end products would be healthier.

The problem is that certain foods – cake, anyone? – made with oils just don’t taste as good. So what did the industry do? They created a third category of fatty acids: trans fats.

(c) ClkrFreeVector Images, pixabay.com

(c) ClkrFreeVector Images, pixabay.com

They took oils – unsaturated fatty acids – and chemically altered their structure so that they were more like fats – saturated fatty acids. They are literally unsaturated fatty acids translated into saturated ones. So they weren’t technically using saturated fatty acids.

Of course, it turns out that the trans fats are even worse for us than saturated fats are.

Now, much like there was back in the day, there is a huge clamor for restaurants and food companies to stop using a certain type of lipid in their products – but this time, its trans fats and not saturated fatty acids.

What’s your take on the trans fat ban? Do you support it?

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