Non-hydrogenated vegetable fats

Advertising stunt or valid help for our health?

There are now many people who have learned to recognize and fear the infamous hydrogenated fats contained in margarine and other foods of industrial origin. This particular type of fatty acids is in fact harmful to our health, since it tends to increase bad cholesterol, decreasing the good one and making the body more susceptible to various diseases (especially of cardiovascular origin).

After the obligation to declare the possible presence of trans fatty acids on the food label in the United States at the beginning of 2006, something has also moved in Italy and in the European Union.

From 13/12/2014, thanks to the "entry into force of the new regulation of the European Commission (1169/2011), even in Italy and in the other Member States it is no longer possible to use the simple generic term" vegetable fats ". food products it is in fact mandatory to indicate the specific vegetable origin of the oils and, possibly, also the words "in variable proportions." Furthermore, if the oils or fats used are hydrogenated, it is mandatory to specify this on the label, adding the words "totally hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" as appropriate.

Thanks to these impositions and to the bad reputation of hydrogenated fats, in the industrial field, where it is very important to enhance the quality of the products, more and more products are starting to be formulated free of totally or partially hydrogenated fats.

The first companies to take action were, of course, those that produce organic food, closely followed by supplement companies and those that focus heavily on the quality of their products.

Often this characteristic is clearly highlighted on the label, trying to convey to the consumer a clear example of the genuineness of the product.

This greater attention to the use of hydrogenated fats in the industrial field has therefore led to advertising messages specifying the use of NON-hydrogenated vegetable fats. Last but not least, the Mulino Bianco campaign which repeatedly emphasizes this feature in its advertisements.

To understand what non-hydrogenated fatty acids are and if they are really harmless to our health, we must first understand how they are produced.

  • Traditional hydrogenation is a process devised at the beginning of the twentieth century to make fats of vegetable origin more solid and less perishable. This process takes place through the use of specific catalysts that subject the mixture of animal oils and fats to high temperatures and pressures until chemically altered fatty acids are obtained. This process is particularly tempting to the food industries since it allows to obtain fats at a reduced cost and with the requisites suitable for your product (spreadability, compactness, etc.) Furthermore, the storage time is considerably extended, a fundamental aspect also from an economic point of view.

Today the food industry is able to use alternative technologies to hydrogenation to obtain vegetable fats free of dangerous trans fats but with the same characteristics. The best known methods are fractionation and intermolecular esterification.

  • Fractionation is a physical process by which a vegetable oil is separated into different fractions characterized by a different degree of solubility. In this way it is possible to obtain a solid part, rich in saturated fatty acids, and a liquid rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated lipids. The solid fraction is particularly resistant to oxidation and is used to produce margarine and vegetable fats in general.
  • Interesterification is a chemical process that modifies the chemical structure of triglycerides by redistributing the fatty acids that compose them (transposition of fatty acids). The basic principle consists in the possibility of detaching a saturated fatty acid from a triglyceride and inserting it into another in replacement of a fatty acid; in this way the physical characteristics of an oil can be altered - for example by increasing the melting temperature, thus obtaining a semi-solid consistency at room temperature. This last characteristic, in fact, does not depend only on the composition in fatty acids of a triglyceride but also from their distribution within the triglyceride itself. In any case, to obtain a semi-solid consistency it is still necessary to increase the percentage of saturated fats.

From the examination of these two production systems we understand how products containing non-hydrogenated vegetable fats are slightly better than those that use traditional vegetable fats.

However, these are artificially manipulated products, not natural and perhaps made from poor quality or already rancid oils. Furthermore, these foods still have a high content of saturated fatty acids, precisely because they are semi-solid at room temperature.

We can therefore compare non-hydrogenated fatty acids to unleaded petrol and the respective catalyst; both substances are certainly less dangerous than in the past, but they are still far from being considered harmless or beneficial.

The term "partially hydrogenated" fats would seem more friendly than the classic term "hydrogenated fats", but in reality the two expressions are equivalent. So be careful not to be misled by fake advertising.

Even the wording "cholesterol free" is certainly misleading to the average consumer. These are simply products prepared using only vegetable oils or fats. This expression therefore does not give us any guarantee either on the presence of hydrogenated fatty acids or on the quality of the oils used for their production.Paradoxically, it could even be a more harmful food than the traditional ones, where fats of animal origin have been replaced with hydrogenated vegetable fats, cholesterol-free but much more dangerous than the previous ones.

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