In the food industry, oils are artificially hydrogenated to make them semi-solid and of a consistency desirable for many processed food products. Simply speaking, hydrogen gas is bubbled through oils to solidify them. During this hydrogenation process, double bonds of the cis– conformation in the hydrocarbon chain may be converted to double bonds in the trans– conformation.
Margarine, some types of peanut butter, and shortening are examples of artificially hydrogenated trans fats. Recent studies have shown that an increase in trans fats in the human diet may lead to an increase in levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol. This in turn may lead to plaque deposition in the arteries, resulting in heart disease. Many fast food restaurants have recently banned the use of trans fats. In fact, food labels are required to display the trans fat content.
Omega Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids are fatty acids required but not synthesized by the human body. Consequently, they have to be supplemented through ingestion via the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids (see image below) fall into this category and are one of only two known for humans (the other being omega-6 fatty acid). These are polyunsaturated fatty acids and are called omega-3 because the third carbon from the end of the hydrocarbon chain is connected to its neighboring carbon by a double bond.
The farthest carbon away from the carboxyl group is numbered as the omega (ω) carbon, and if the double bond is between the third and fourth carbon from that end, it is known as an omega-3 fatty acid. Nutritionally important because the body does not make them, omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which are polyunsaturated. Salmon, trout, and tuna are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of sudden death from heart attacks, reduce triglycerides in the blood, lower blood pressure, and prevent thrombosis by inhibiting blood clotting. They also reduce inflammation, and may help reduce the risk of some cancers in animals.
Benefits of Fats
Like carbohydrates, fats have received a lot of bad publicity. It is true that eating an excess of fried foods and other “fatty” foods leads to weight gain. However, fats do have important functions. Many vitamins are fat soluble, and fats serve as a long-term storage form of fatty acids: a source of energy. They also provide insulation for the body. Therefore, “healthy” fats in moderate amounts should be consumed on a regular basis.
Wax covers the feathers of some aquatic birds and the leaf surfaces of some plants. Because of the hydrophobic nature of waxes, they prevent water from sticking on the surface (see image above). Basically, waxes consist of long fatty acid chains esterified to long-chain alcohols.