Industrial Fats - Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck

Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck (2016)

Chapter 7. Industrial Fats


The advice to replace butter with margarine containing trans fats constituted a radical dietary experiment. Trans fats are created when oil is hydrogenated. That’s when unsaturated oil is blasted with hydrogen atoms, a form of artificial saturation that makes the liquid oil solid, like natural saturated fats. But the similarity between trans fats and traditional saturated fats ends there. Trans fats are new and dangerous. Traditional diets contain healthy saturated fats from both plants (like coconut) and animals (butter), but until the twentieth century, no one ate trans fats, and now we know they cause heart disease.1

Hydrogenated vegetable oils are widely used in cakes, cookies, donuts, chips, and crackers, for the same reason food companies once used coconut oil: they’re solid, heat-stable, and don’t spoil easily. Though it’s possible to hydrogenate any fat that is not fully saturated (such as lard, which is about 60 percent unsaturated), most hydrogenated oils are made from polyunsaturated vegetable oils such as canola, corn, and soybean. In a moment we’ll come back to trans fats, but first, let’s look at margarine, the mother of hydrogenated oils.

In the nineteenth century, a patriotic French chemist, who had already earned gold medals for making bread with less flour, invented margarine. A cattle plague having recently devastated European herds, “butter was difficult to get and expensive,” writes Margaret Visser in Much Depends on Dinner. Napoleon III offered a prize for the invention of a cheaper substitute for butter. Tinkering on the imperial farm in Vincennes, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès won the prize in 1869, for his blend of beef fat and sheep stomach, with added milk for flavor.

This inexpensive, solid fat—known in English as oleomargarine—was taken up by the Dutch and English poor, who, like other European peasants, couldn’t afford butter. When the first U.S. oleomargarine plant opened in Manhattan in the 1870s, Americans, blessed with ample green pastures, were in a better position: there was still plenty of butter to be had. Although the Chicago-based meatpacking industry doggedly promoted oleomargarine as a cheaper substitute for butter, the unappealing white blocks were not an overnight success with American cooks.

Dairy farmers, however, rightly saw a long-term commercial threat from this less expensive upstart and began to lobby furiously for laws to restrict margarine sales. For example, they stopped it from ever being called “butter.” Margarine makers fought back, proposing, quite sensibly, to dye margarine yellow to make it look like butter. Color had always been the buyer’s clue to butter quality. Grass-fed butter, rich in vitamin A, is yellow, while butter from grain-fed cows is white.

With the help of friendly politicians, dairy farmers put a stop to yellow dye, and five states with dairy muscle even forced margarine makers to dye it pink, apparently intending to make it look ridiculous. Undeterred, margarine makers responded by selling the white blocks with a packet of yellow dye to mix in at home. This, presumably, would fool the family—if not the cook.

“On the whole,” writes Visser, “the producers of butter fought a very dirty fight.” But in vain. After a series of skirmishes, the dairy industry gradually lost clout, while the power of margarine manufacturers grew. By 1950, President Harry Truman had repealed the last of the antimargarine laws, and punishing taxes on margarine were lifted. The modern margarine business was off and running.

Meanwhile, a revolutionary method for making solid fats was soon to transform the margarine industry, according to the food and travel writer Linda Joyce Forristal, who is famous for lard pie crusts and better known as Mother Linda.2 In the late 1890s, the soap and candle company Proctor & Gamble was fed up with the high price of lard and tallow—the market was controlled by the powerful meatpacking industry—and began to look for alternatives. It settled on cottonseed oil and in classic capitalist fashion soon owned eight cottonseed plants in Mississippi, the better to secure its supply. In 1907, company scientists figured out how to make liquid oil solid by firing it with hydrogen. “Mindful that electrification was forcing the candle business into decline, P&G looked for other markets for their new product,” explains Forristal. “Since hydrogenated cottonseed oil resembled lard, why not sell it as a food?”

Introduced in 1911, the new product was presented as healthier, cheaper, and cleaner than butter and lard. Proctor & Gamble promoted the spreadable white vegetable fat in women’s magazines and gave away a cookbook with 615 recipes calling for it by the brand name: Crisco. The marketing department spent time on Jewish cooks in particular. Crisco made it easier to keep kosher because it was like butter, but could be eaten with meats, and it was also a substitute for lard.

Then, in the 1950s, came another fillip for plucky, can’t-knock-me-down margarine: official advice that saturated fats were unhealthy. The makers of Crisco and the vegetable oil industry worked to spread the word that animal fats caused heart disease. Food companies and restaurants came under pressure to stop using coconut oil, butter, and lard. With hydrogenation, the vegetable oil industry could offer what seemed to be the ideal fat: polyunsaturated, yet solid and shelf-stable. That is how trans fats pushed lard and butter out of American kitchens.

As we now know, the experiment with margarine ended badly, spectacularly so. Trans fats wreak havoc all over the body, and for a long time, these dangerous fats were hard to detect. Nutrition labels listed saturated and unsaturated fats, but the careful consumer had to read the ingredient list for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils to avoid trans fats. In 2006, things got easier, when the FDA required food labels to list trans fats. “The minute it goes on the label, it’s out of the food supply,” said Dr. Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University and author of Food Politics. “That’s how food policy is done in this country.”


Begin with a polyunsaturated, liquid vegetable oil rancid from extraction under high heat. Any oil will do, but about 85 percent of hydrogenated oils are soybean. Mix with tiny metal particles, usually nickel oxide. In a high-pressure, high-temperature reactor, shoot hydrogen atoms at the unsaturated carbon bonds. Add soaplike emulsifiers and starch to make it soft and creamy. Steam to remove foul odors, bleach away the gray color, dye it yellow, and add artificial flavors. If you prefer real food, but you like a soft spread, try this idea from Fran McCullough: mix equal parts room-temperature butter and olive oil until creamy. Add unrefined salt to taste.


[Trans fats are the] biggest food-processing disaster in U.S. history … In Europe [food companies] hired chemists and took trans fats out … In the United States, they hired lawyers and public relations people.

—Professor Walter Willett,
Harvard School of Public Health

In the last century, the American diet changed radically, but how it changed might surprise you. We eat less butter, lard, and beef and vastly more polyunsaturated oils now than in 1900. We also eat an industrial saturated fat that didn’t exist in 1900. Before World War II, Americans ate about 12 grams of trans fats daily, by 1985 as much as 40 grams.3 Since the 1970s, Americans have eaten roughly twice as much margarine as butter. For a major cause of heart disease, look no further. Lard and butter “aren’t public enemy no. 1 anymore,” says Dr. Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health. That designation now belongs to trans fats.

According to Dr. Walter Willett at Harvard, trans fats caused up to one hundred thousand premature deaths annually from heart disease.4 Compared with saturated fat, trans fats raise triglycerides, reduce blood vessel function, and raise lipoprotein (a), which causes clots and atherosclerosis.5 They raise LDL and reduce HDL. Willett says trans fats are twice as bad for the HDL/LDL ratio as saturated fats. Even experts like Hu and Willett who are cautious about saturated fat agree that butter is better than margarine.

It’s dismaying that the dangers of trans fats were known for sixty years. Weston Price cited 1943 research that butter was better than hydrogenated cottonseed oil. In the 1950s, researchers guessed that hydrogenated vegetable oil led to heart disease.6 Ancel Keys, the proponent of monounsaturated fat, showed in 1961 that hydrogenated corn oil raised triglycerides more than butter.7 Year after year, the bad news piled up.

One dogged researcher, Mary Enig, helped to get the word out. The author of Know Your Fats, Enig waged an often lonely battle. I’m afraid her efforts were not always welcomed with bouquets of roses. In 1978, Enig wrote a paper challenging a government report blaming saturated fat for cancer, in which she pointed out that the data actually showed a link with trans fats. Not long after, “two guys from the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils—the trans fat lobby, basically—visited me, and boy, were they angry,” Enig told Gourmet magazine.8 “They said they’d been keeping a careful watch to prevent articles like mine from coming out and didn’t know how this horse had gotten out of the barn.”


✵Lower HDL

✵Raise LDL

✵Raise Lp(a), which promotes atherosclerosis and clotting

✵Reduce blood vessel function

✵Promote obesity, diabetes, and hypertension

✵Alter fat cell size and number

✵Reduce cream in breast milk

✵Reduce fertility and correlate with low birth weight

✵Increase asthma

✵Reduce immune response

✵Interfere with the conversion and use of DHA and EPA

✵Disrupt enzymes that metabolize carcinogens and drugs

✵Damage cell membranes

✵Create free radicals

Main source: Enig Associates.

The stakes were high. “We spent lots of time, and lots of money and energy, refuting this work,” said Dr. Lars Wiederman, who once worked for the American Soybean Association. “Protecting trans fats from the taint of negative scientific findings was our charge.”

At Harvard, meanwhile, Willett and his colleagues produced definitive studies on trans fats, providing data that proved crucial in convincing the government that trans fats were unsafe. In 1999, Willett described how the food industry had tried to delay the guilty verdict.

Food manufacturers use partial hydrogenation of vegetable oil to destroy some fatty acids, such as linolenic and linoleic acid, which tend to oxidize, causing fat to become rancid. Commercial production of partially hydrogenated fats began in the early 20th century and increased steadily until about the 1960s as processed vegetable fats displaced animal fats in the diet. Lower cost was the initial motivation, but health benefits were later claimed for margarine as a replacement for butter … Trans fats [are] associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. In response to these reports, a 1995 review sponsored by the food industry concluded that the evidence was insufficient to take action and further research was needed.9

Fortunately for the public, researchers did carry on. Unfortunately for the trans fat lobby, the news got worse. At last, official word came from the National Academy of Sciences, which announced in 2002 that trans fats have “no known health benefits” and no level of consumption is safe.10

As the list in the preceding sidebar shows, trans fats do a lot of damage in addition to causing heart disease. Recall that all of your cell walls are made of fat. Like natural fats, trans fats enter the tissues and become part of the cell membrane, where, unlike natural fats, they disrupt every cellular activity, from metabolism to immunity. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are walking around with cell walls made of trans fats. The deadly effects of industrial trans fats will be with us for some time. The sooner we ban trans fats—as Denmark has—the better.11


Since the 1970s, experts have urged us to eat less fat and to replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated oils. Did Americans do as they were told? Yes and no. In 2000, we ignored official advice and ate more total fat than ten years before. In the low-fat era, this may be surprising; larger portions of junk foods and plain old gluttony probably played a part. We did eat more vegetable oils, as instructed. Perhaps we were simply obedient and used more vegetable oils in cooking, but I suspect Americans didn’t always choose the polyunsaturated oils now ubiquitous in cookies, crackers, and other processed foods. Sometimes, the food supply changes, not only without our say-so, but without our being the wiser. In this case, cheap vegetable oils (often hydrogenated) were the ingredient the food industry chose, and those were the fats we got.






Total fat









Salad and cooking oils



SOURCE: USDA Agricultural Statistics, 2003.

Perhaps you’re thinking what I thought when I first saw these figures: vegetable oils are a good source of omega-6 linoleic acid (LA), one of the essential fats. What’s wrong with that? In modest amounts, nothing. But we eat far too many. The balance between the two essential fats, omega-3 and omega-6, is out of whack. We should eat roughly equal amounts, but the industrial diet has about twenty times more omega-6 than omega-3 fats. For three million years, no human ate like that.

The flood of omega-6 fats comes from the American heartland, once known for rippling wheat fields. This lovely image is outdated. Today the breadbasket is more like an oil field, studded with rigs spewing soybean and corn oil. (And corn syrup and starch. The food writer Michael Pollan calls corn “the keystone species of the industrial food system.”)12 The heartland oils are fountains of omega-6 fats. Soybean oil is 53 percent omega-6, corn 57 percent, sunflower 68 percent, and safflower 78 percent. Corn oil contains sixty times more omega-6 than omega-3 fats. In safflower oil, the ratio is 77:1. That’s a long way from the ideal ratio of 1:1.

“The current Western diet is very high in omega-6 fats because of the indiscriminate recommendation to substitute omega-6 fats for saturated fats to lower serum cholesterol,” says Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, author of The Omega Diet. Industrial farming has made things worse: “Intake of omega-3 fats is much lower today because of the decrease in fish consumption and the industrial production of animal feeds rich in grains containing omega-6 fats, leading to production of meat rich in omega-6 and poor in omega-3 fats. The same is true for cultured fish and eggs.”13

What’s wrong with eating too many omega-6 fats? From the omega fats, the body makes chemicals called eicosanoids, hormonelike agents with far-reaching effects on metabolism, inflammation, immunity, fertility, blood pressure, skin, vision, and mood. “Eicosanoids are involved from the top of the head in the brain to the nerves at the bottom of the feet and everywhere in between,” writes Kenneth Broughton, a professor of nutrition at the University of Wyoming.14

Omega-3 and omega-6 eicosanoids play opposite and equally vital roles. Omega-3 eicosanoids are anti-inflammatory and calming, for example, while omega-6 eicosanoids are inflammatory and reactive. Late in pregnancy, omega-6 eicosanoids prompt labor to begin and omega-3 fats prevent premature birth. Omega-6 agents suppress, and omega-3 agents promote, ovulation.15 By promoting clotting, omega-6 eicosanoids stop you from bleeding to death from a small cut. Omega-3 eicosanoids, on the other hand, thin the blood, which helps prevent heart attack and stroke. (There is one notable exception: the omega-6 fat GLA tends to behave more like an omega-3, fighting inflammation and heart disease. GLA is in the oils of black currant, borage, evening primrose, and Siberian pine nut.)

Imagine a body dominated by omega-6 eicosanoids; symptoms would include inflammation, obesity, insulin resistance, premature labor, infertility, blood clots, and depression. As for heart disease, omega-6 eicosanoids are trouble. They promote inflammation, constrict blood vessels, and encourage platelet stickiness and clotting. Oxidized omega-6 fats lead to oxidized LDL, which causes atherosclerosis.16

Omega-6 fats are the key to a mystery scientists dubbed the “Israeli Paradox.” In 1996, researchers noted that Israelis followed the recommended diet for preventing obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. They ate fewer calories, more carbohydrates, less fat, less saturated fat, and more polyunsaturated vegetable oils than Americans. In fact, their diet closely resembled the USDA food pyramid, including generous amounts of fruit and vegetables. Notably, they ate more omega-6 fats than any group in the world. The reward for this dietary discipline? Higher rates of obesity and diabetes than Americans and similar rates of heart disease. “Rather than being beneficial,” said researchers, “high omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid diets may have some long-term side effects within the cluster of hyperinsulinemia, atherosclerosis, and tumorigenesis.”17 In plain words, omega-6 fats lead to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. There is strong evidence that omega-6 fats make cancer cells grow faster.18

Americans are on the same unhealthy track. We eat too many vegetable oils, too few natural saturated fats, and too many refined carbohydrates, which raise triglycerides. This is new. When our ancestors ate grains and omega-6 fats, they came from whole foods: leafy plants, whole wheat, and corn. Native Americans rarely, if ever, ate pure corn oil. They ate the whole corn kernel: bran, carbohydrate, oil, and all. Corn was ground slowly between stones, leaving its unsaturated fats and antioxidant vitamin E intact. People ate whole grains and fresh, unrefined oils.


Israelis eat less fat and more polyunsaturated oils than Americans, yet they have higher rates of obesity and diabetes and similar rates of heart disease. Scientists blame excess omega-6 fats from LA.



Calories (per day)



Calories from fat (%)



Ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated fat



Calories from carbohydrates (%)



SOURCE: Susan Allport, “The Skinny on Fat,” Gastronomica 3, no. 1 (2003): 28-36.

Industrial vegetable oil processing, by contrast, removes flavor and nutrients. Grain, beans, and seeds are crushed under high heat and extracted with chemical solvents like hexane, which is then boiled off. They may be bleached, refined, and deodorized. All this damages the polyunsaturated fats, destroys vitamin E, and creates free radicals.

Modern vegetable oils are not my idea of real food. Corn, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oil have little flavor, which is reason enough not to eat them. Moreover, they don’t contain any important nutrient that I can’t find in some other traditional food. You can get all the vitamin E you need from almonds, avocados, and whole grains, and more than enough omega-6 fats from olive oil.


In the annals of oils, canola oil is worth a little detour, because it is a unique vegetable oil and much celebrated by advocates of the “heart healthy” diet. Perhaps the most famous modern vegetable oil, canola is made from rapeseed, a member of the genus Brassica, which includes broccoli and cabbage. Unusually for a seed oil, it’s rich in monounsaturated fat, with some omega-3 fats, too. In recent years, Americans have added huge amounts of canola oil to their diets. In 1992, the United States imported 381,000 metric tons of canola oil; in 2001, 540,000 tons came in.

Traditional rapeseed oil has a long history of culinary use in China and India, where the seeds were ground between stones and they used the oil fresh, probably in relatively small quantities, given the slow method of making oil. Unfortunately, much of the fat (about 50 percent) in rapeseed is erucic acid, which causes lesions on the heart. Scientists have long been aware of the erucic acid problem, and in the 1970s they bred a new rapeseed oil low in erucic acid. They called it canola, for Canadian oil.

This new rapeseed oil is typically about 60 percent monounsaturated oleic acid, 20 percent polyunsaturated omega-6, 10 percent polyunsaturated omega-3, and most of the rest is saturated. With this combination of fats, canola oil was promoted as good for the heart and sales grew quickly. Official dietary advice and cookbooks were key to the campaign, with many recipes calling for heart-friendly monounsaturated canola oil to lower cholesterol. In 1985, canola oil won GRAS status—Generally Recognized as Safe—from the FDA. Highly coveted, GRAS means that a company doesn’t have to prove an ingredient is safe each time it is added to foods.

However, canola oil isn’t perfect. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in canola oil (2:1) is not ideal—but it’s not terrible, either. Like other modern vegetable oils, most canola oil is refined under heat and pressure, which damages its omega-3 fats. Because canola oil is more easily hydrogenated than some vegetable oils, it is often used in processed foods. Finally, much of the low-erucic acid canola oil crop is genetically engineered.

It’s difficult to find neutral information on canola. Its fans and critics are equally firm. For obvious reasons, there are no long-term studies: low-erucic acid canola oil is a relatively new food. Many of the alarming claims making the rounds are probably overstated, and I won’t repeat them here. However, animal studies have linked canola oil with reduced platelet count, shorter life span, and greater need for vitamin E. The United States and Canada do not permit canola oil to be used in infant formula because it retards growth in animals. In one human study, canola oil raised triglycerides while saturated fats lowered triglycerides.19

Despite these caveats, many nutritionists are enthusiastic about canola oil for its monounsaturated fats. Loren Cordain, the expert on Stone Age diets, favors canola oil, even though it is a very modern food. “There is no credible scientific evidence showing that canola oil is harmful to humans,” he says.

I never use canola oil, largely because I have no reason to. For flavor, health, and cooking, I simply prefer other fats. The flavor of canola oil is nothing special. Wild salmon and flaxseed oil are a far better source of omega-3 fats, and olive and macadamia nut oil are more delicious sources of monounsaturated fats. For sautéing and roasting, I prefer olive oil and butter, and for baking, butter or lard.

If you do use canola oil, recall the general rule for unsaturated fats: buy cold-pressed, unrefined oil and heat it gently, never to the smoking point. If you would like to avoid genetically engineered rapeseed, look for certified organic oil.