Thursday, January 1, 2009

More on Hydrogenated Fat

I stumbled on an interesting history of hydrogenated vegetable oil on the website Soy Info Center. It turns out, margarine was made out of animal fat before 1915. Hydrogenated vegetable shortening (Crisco) was introduced in 1911. Before that our intake of trans fat was very low, coming chiefly from dairy and meat (not the same as synthetic trans fats). Here's an excerpt from the website:
In 1909 Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati acquired the US rights to the Normann patent from Crosfield's and in 1911 they began marketing Crisco, the first hydrogenated shortening, which contained a large amount of cottonseed oil. In America, however, six other firms had been working since 1915 according to the patents of C.E. Kayser (1910) and Carleton Ellis (1912), and with a number of other processes, most of which were never published. After a long period of litigation, initiated by Procter & Gamble, for alleged infringement of patent rights, a US court decision held the 1915 Burchenal patent (US Patent 1,135,351), under whose broad claims P&G's shortening was then being made, to be invalid. This opened the way for a number of firms to begin manufacture of hydrogenated shortenings and, from 1915, margarines.
Hydrogenated vegetable oil wasn't widely eaten until 1920:
Before the use of hydrogenation, the production of shortening and margarine had been entirely dependent on animal fats as a source of raw materials. Increased demand soon caused these to grow scarce and expensive. Thus hydrogenation liberated shortening and margarine from their dependence on animal fats and made it possible for cooks to have products resembling lard and butter made from vegetable oils. Nevertheless it was not until after 1920 that hydrogenated vegetable oils were widely used in margarine and shortening. During the 1930s the use of hydrogenation worldwide took a quantum leap forward, as production increased greatly.

By the late 1970s roughly 60% of all edible oils and fats in the US were partially hydrogenated (Dutton, in Emken and Dutton 1979). And an estimated 75% of the soy oil used in the US was hydrogenated to make shortening and margarine, as well as large amounts of lightly hydrogenated soy cooking and salad oils (Kromer 1976).

Rizek et al. (1974) estimated that in the period from 1937 to 1972 per capita annual consumption of trans fatty acids increased by 81%, from 6.3-11.4 gm. During the same period per capita consumption of vegetable oils and fats increased by only 64% (from 36-59 gm).
Death from coronary heart disease was rare until 1925. It peaked in the 1950s, remaining high through the 1970s and diminishing only due to modern medical interventions. Coincidence? I don't know, but it's awfully suspicious.

Here is a description of the hydrogenation process. Makes my mouth water:
Typically, a mixture of refined oil and finely powdered nickel catalyst (comprising 0.05-0.1% of the weight of the oil) is pumped into a cylindrical pressure reactor of 5-20 tons capacity. It is heated by heating coils to 120-188°C (248-370°F) at 1-6 atmospheres pressure. Hydrogen is pumped into the bottom of the reactor and dispersed by a stirrer, continuously, as bubbles into the oil... After hydrogenation is completed to the desired degree, the oil is filtered to remove the catalyst (which may be reused) then pumped to a storage tank; it may later be blended with other harder or softer fats or oils to make margarine or shortening.
Who in his right mind would think this stuff is suitable for human consumption? Hydrogenated vegetable oil is ubiquitous in processed food, because of its low cost and long shelf life, although the amounts are diminishing since the FDA required it to be included on nutrition labels in 2006. The implication here is that consumers know it's unhealthy, but manufacturers aren't going to stop putting it in foods until someone shines a spotlight on them.

It will be interesting to see if CHD incidence drops with decreasing trans fat intake. The obesity epidemic does seem to be leveling off in the U.S. This also corresponds with other recent dietary improvements such as a small decrease in sugar, wheat and vegetable oil consumption (see this post).


Anne said...

One problem is that food labels can say Zero trans fat and still contain up to .5mg of the stuff. Since there is no known "safe" amount of trans fat, a few servings of .5mg each can give you a pretty good dose of it.

Have you heard anything about interesterified fat replacing trans fats?

Stephan Guyenet said...


Yes, that's a big problem and it's terribly misleading.

Interesterified fat is a problem too. Here's what we should do: make the food manufacturers who want to sell it, eat it and feed it to their kids for two generations. If it doesn't cause any health problems, then they can sell it.

Debs said...

I've been digging a little in the NY Times archive. Found a few interesting things:

- An article from 1915 about an innovative new way to produce margarine from the oil of sunflowers, in the face of a butter shortage

- Articles from the 1870s, 1880s and early 1900s about the devious practice of producing margarine, often in filthy conditions, and marketing it as butter. While some margarine seems to have come entirely from animal fat, much of it was combined with peanut oil and/or cottonseed oil.

Just from the few articles I looked it, it seems like over a few decades, the quality of margarine got worse and worse as newer and cheaper substances were introduced. In that way, it's like a of a miniature version of what would play out in the 1900s for most of our food supply: a constant search for deceptive, cheaper substitutes for real foods.

Another interesting tidbit: in the nineteenth century, margarine wasn't heated terribly high in production, because the result would be something so rancid, nobody would want to eat it. There was controversy over whether such a low temperature meant the product would contain parasites from the animal fat. Of course, they got around this problem in the twentieth century by bleaching and deodorizing the finished product. Yum!

Food Is Love/Seattle Local Food

Stephan Guyenet said...


Nice finds. It sounds like the practice of replacing real food with cheap substitutes has been going on for a long time!

theoddbod said...

I love seeing the detailed processing that hydrogenated fats undergo, really sounds nice and sure our bodies appreciate it. so true though, the naturally occuring trans fats (in dairy and meat) are actually decent for your health (CLA, etc..) but when we try to make things industrial trans fats, watch out!

JMC said...

Yes, Trans Fat are among the worse foods you can eat and they are implicated in a variety of diseases, through multiple mechanisms. The problem is allways the same: almost every disease "of civilization" has various causes (including multiple dietary causes) and unless we address ALL the causes, we won't stop it.



Monica said...

The worst thing about this whole trans fat issue, IMO, is that now that they're banning it in various places, bakeries are probably going to be using polyunsaturates as a replacement, rather than saturates like coconut and palm oils.

According to this Weston A Price article (

Although the Canadian government lists the trans content of canola at a minimal 0.2 percent, research at the University of Florida at Gainesville, found trans levels as high as 4.6 percent in commercial liquid oil.24 The consumer has no clue about the presence of trans fatty acids in canola oil because they are not listed on the label.

Thus, I have no reason to really believe the label on any vegetable oil, anyway.

It's just one more example of how government regulations impede progress. Along with allowing fraudulent labeling to the highest bidder or other corporate cronies on any variety of products, they've created a conventional wisdom that says saturated fats are bad that held on for decades longer than it would have without their influence. It's true that the government requires labels in the first place, and there were fewer labels around before 1970, but it gives a false impression that the FDA and USDA have the consumers' back when really it's just become an enormous protection racket for various chosen industries -- sometimes completely unintentionally, I think, after these nutritional recommendations grow a life of their own.

So now we'll be replacing trans fats with trans fats in restaurants and bakeries. Great.

Back in the early 1900s they actually filled milk with vegetable oil to augment the fat content and make it look more like milk. Gross.

Robert Andrew Brown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Andrew Brown said...

Industrial lard and dripping.

In the examination of margarines and vegetable baking fats it is easy to loose sight of the fact that animal based lard and baking products are also process to bits including hydrogenation. So they must include artificial trans fats too. (Obviously animal fats will contain some natural trans fats)

In fact margarines and vegetable fats have a better nutrient profile than industrial lard and dripping. They contain some anti oxidants and vitamins (if reintroduced including vit E as an antioxidant) but industrial lard (processed for shelf life and historically more heavily used in bakery and processed foods) appears to contain almost NONE !!

This may account for some of the confusing results when look at saturated fats, and their health impact on wider populations.

(- Christmas pudding and mince pies are examples that used to contain suet albeit industrial but have also fallen to the vegetable message -)

Lard Wikipedia


Robert Brown


Omega Six The Devils Fat

Stephan Guyenet said...


I think there's only one main cause of the diseases of civilization: unnatural/processed foods! Of course, all the various mechanisms can be parsed out ad infinitum. But in the end, the simplest point is the most important in my opinion.


One thing that could prevent manufacturers from using polyunsaturated fats instead of trans fats is their melting temp and tendency to go rancid. Hydrogenated fats are nice because they're solid at room temp. I'm not sure regular veg oil can really fill that niche. I've noticed a trend back to tropical oils in health-food oriented products like organic no-stir peanut butter with palm oil instead of hydrogenated soybean oil. Hopefully the trend will continue.


I agree, industrial lard is no good either. Homemade lard from leaf fat is the way to go! It's lower in omega-6, rich in vitamin D, and doesn't contain trans fat. It's about 6% LA.

Monica said...

I hope you're right, particularly in light of these pinheads making recommendations to restaurants (excepting Michael Jacobson, of course):

That's an old article. I actually don't know what restaurants and bakeries plan to use now -- it would be interesting to find out. My guess is that it's not going to be as easy to use vegetable oils for baked goods, but I think it's still possible.

daiikkon said...

Sorry, this comment might not exactly fit here but is the only difference between cod liver oil and a liquid omega-3 supplement the A, D, & E vitamins?

Stephan Guyenet said...


The difference is the A and D, and also K if the CLO is fermented.

rahmin said...

do you have a recommended provider of fermented CLO?

i'm a 25yo male. my dad had a minor heart attack at 41 and recently underwent an angiogram to find that the last 10 years of statins had done little to prevent his arteries from getting clogged up. after that first heart attack, my mom switched from butter to olive and grapeseed oil. he takes fish oil supplements and i believe also takes flax seed oil. He cut out as much red meat as possible too. I grew up with a feeling of guilt around eating meat and butter, thinking that they would lead to my own eventual demise.

Thank you for your writing. It's helped, along with Michael Pollen's work, rebuild my love for good, real food.

Stephan Guyenet said...


Green Pastures makes a fermented CLO.

Sorry to hear about your Dad, that is so common. Doctors continue to recommend reducing butter intake when it has never been shown to improve cardiovascular health. Grapeseed oil is no good, it contains a lot of omega-6.

I'm glad the blog has helped you rediscover good food, that is a hell of a compliment!

Robert M. said...

I have one thought: when using a powdered catalyst (such as catalytic cracking of heavy petroleum oil, or indeed hydrogenation of heavy oil), the catalyst is never fully recovered. Some of the catalyst, in this case nickel, will still be present in the finished product.

The negative effects of transaturated fats don't really match up well to the known effects of nickel toxicity, but still, it's an interesting thought.

Stephan Guyenet said...


You're correct, some of the nickel sticks around in the hydrogenated oil. It's not a lot though, compared with what a typical person ingests daily.

gsgs said...

so, where is the chart that shows yearly trans-fat consumption 1920-1970 ?
Or trans-fat production. Just estimates. Any country. (but i.e. USA,UK)
I can't find. I can't find others asking for it.
That seems to be the most canonical thing to me for resolving the origin
of CHD and that possible culprit.
Procter and Gamble should have it.