Artificial trans fats: businness and health

The hydrogenation of vegetable oils

The process of hydrogenation was first discovered in 1897 by French Nobel prize in Chemistry (jointly with fellow Frenchman Victor Grignard) Paul Sabatier using a nickel catalyst.
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were developed in 1903 by a German chemist, Wilhelm Normann who files British patent on “Process for converting unsaturated fatty acids or their glycerides into saturated compounds” and the term trans fatty acids or trans fats (they are produced  during partial hydrogenation of edible oils containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids) appeared for the first time in the Remark column of the 5th edition of the “Standard Tables of Food Composition” in Japan.

Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were developed as a cheaper alternative to animal fats.
Moreover, they:

  • contribute to the hardness of fat in which they are who can be semi-solids and solids (they are used to make margarine or shortening with a melting point, consistency and “mouth feel” similar to those of butter);
  • have a long shelf life at room temperature;
  • have flavor stability and be stable during frying.

Note: per year in USA 6-8 billion pounds of hydrogenated vegetable oil are produced.

The war on artificial trans fats

Trans Fats
Fig. 1 – Shortening

The first hydrogenated oil was cottonseed oil in USA in 1911 to produce vegetable shortening.
So, before this date, the only trans fats in human diet were those derived from ruminants.
In the 1930’s partial hydrogenation became popular with the development of margarine; through hydrogenation, oils such as soybean, safflower and cottonseed oil, which are rich in unsaturated fatty acids, are converted to margarines and vegetable shortenings.
Until 1985 no adverse effects of trans fats on human health was demonstrated and in 1975 Procter & Gamble study shows no effect of partially hydrogenated fats on cholesterol.
Their use in fast food preparation grow up from 1980’s when the role of dietary saturated fats in increasing cardiac risk began clear; it was led a successful campaign to get McDonald’s to switch from beef tallow to vegetable oil for frying its French fries. Meanwhile, studies began to raise concerns about their effects on health: on 1985 in USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concludes that trans fats and monounsaturated fat oleic acid affect serum cholesterol level similarly but from the second half of 1985 their harmful began clear and the final proof comes from both controlled feeding trials and prospective epidemiologic studies.
After June 1996 they were eliminated from margarine sold in Australia, which before contributed about 50% of the dietary intake of trans fatty acids in such country.
On March 11, 2003 the Danish government, after a debate started in 1994 and two new reports in 2001 and 2003, decided to phase out the use of industrially produced trans fats (ITFA) in food before the end of 2003; two years later, however, the European Commission asked Denmark to withdraw this law, which was not accepted on the EU level, unfortunately.
Canada is considering legislation to eliminate industrially produced trans fats from food supplies.
On 2003 FDA ruled that food labels (for conventional foods and supplements) show trans fat content beginning January 1, 2006. Notably, this ruling is the first substantive change to food labeling since the requirement for per-serving food labels information was added in 1990.
On 2005 the US Department of Agriculture made a minimized intake of trans fats a key recommendation of the new food-pyramid guidelines.
On 2006 American Heart Association recommends to limit their intake to 1% of daily calorie consumption and suggests food manufacturers and restaurants switch to other fats.
On 2006 New York City Board of Health announces trans fat ban in its 40.000 restaurants within July 1, 2008.


Akoh C.C. and Min D.B. “Food lipids: chemistry, nutrition, and biotechnology” 3th ed. 2008

Ascherio A., Katan M.B., Zock P.L., Stampfer M.J., Willett W.C. Trans fatty acids and coronary heart disease. N Engl J Med 1999;340:1994-8 [Abstract]

Chow Ching K. “Fatty acids in foods and their health implication” 3th ed. 2008

Eckel R.H., Borra S., Lichtenstein A.H., Yin-Piazza D.Y. Understanding the Complexity of Trans fatty acid reduction in the American diet. American Heart Association trans fat conference 2006 report of the trans fat conference planning group. Circulation 2007;115:2231-46; originally published online Apr 10, 2007 [Abstract]

Mozaffarian D., Jacobson M.F., Greenstein J.S. Food Reformulations to reduce trans fatty acids. N Eng J Med 2010;362:2037-39 [PDF]

Okie S. New York to trans fats: you’re out! N Engl J Med 2007;356:2017-21 [PDF]

Stender S., Astrup A., Dyerberg J. What went in when trans went out?. N Engl J Med 2009;361:314-16 [PDF]

Stender S., Dyerberg J. and Astrup A. Consumer protection through a legislative ban on industrially produced trans fatty acids in foods in Denmark. Scand J Food Nutr 2006;50:155-60 [Abstract]

Stender S., Dyerberg J. The influence of trans fatty acids on health. Fourth edition 2003 (from Danish Nutrition Council; publ. no. 34)