DR. HOOK- Chemistry lesson: There's nothing good about trans fat

DuPont used to advertise "better living through chemistry." Couples usually talk about the "chemistry" that brought them together. (In Britney Spears and K-Fed's case, I think their chemistry involved ethanol, among other things.) Bad chemistry between Moonlighting's Cybil Sheppard and Bruce Willis made the show a smash.

   When I was taking organic chemistry, our professor invited the author of our textbook to class. I don't remember the author's name, but I do remember her book cover was purple and looked very cool. (Who says you can't judge a book by its cover?) That day she said the most important thing I learned in college: "You probably won't remember 95 percent of what you learn from this class or in college, period.  But the way you think will be permanently altered."  

Dang, I wonder if she was related to Confucius! That was brilliant! So now that I see on my nachos' bag and in my cooking oil, "No Trans Fats" I have to backtrack to organic chemistry and think, "What's the difference between trans and the other kind of fat, cis?" Fortunately, that's some of the 5 percent I still remember. What are trans fatty acids?

   Fatty acids consist of a chain of carbons with some oxygen towards the end. Like a string of pearls, the carbons are connected by a single bond, and the remaining bonds are to hydrogens. So if all the carbons are maxed out with hydrogen bonds, they're "saturated" with hydrogens. Ah... oh!  

However, if some of the carbons decide to double bond with their neighbor carbons, the carbons have to drop a hydrogen atom each-– so the fatty acid is no longer saturated with hydrogens. It's "unsaturated" and healthier for your heart than saturated fats. 

   Partially saturated fatty acid has only one double-bonded carbon set, and the configuration is either cis or trans. Cis means the hydrogens are on the same side of the chain, and trans means the hydrogens are on opposite sides. And as I learned in organic chemistry, this configuration totally changes the shape of the molecule. Trans fatty acids are linked to bad things like heart attacks, sudden death, and heart failure. Trans fats might taste good, but they ruin a good meal by lowering HDL (good cholesterol), increasing LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides, and making lipoproteins worse (such as Lpa and B-100).  Makes those French fries, breaded chicken nuggets, and breaded fish burgers harder to swallow, no?

   Also trans fats have been shown to increase inflammatory markers and inflammatory chemicals in the body, like tumor necrosis factor, C-reactive peptide, and IL-6. All these things increase the risk of atherosclerosis (sometimes called "hardening of the arteries"). Pies, danishes, and doughnuts might bake cholesterol plaques in your arteries!

   It doesn't take a lot of trans fats to increase the risk of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). One study showed a 2 percent increase in trans fat in the diet increased CHD by 23 percent. Now 23 percent increased risk isn't a lot, except when considering such a small increase in dietary trans fats. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, virtually eliminating trans fats from the diet will decrease CHD events by up to 22 percent– saving possibly over 200,000 lives a year. Dietitians report no benefits of trans fats, so the potential harm is not worth eating it. A pat of margarine might not be like a pat on the back.

   Why do people cook with trans fats?  It's stable in frying, has a long shelf life, tastes good, and is palatable. The average American eats 2-7g of trans fats a day. But the question for you is, "Do you have good chemistry with trans fats?"

That's the heart of the matter.

Dr. Hook cracks a joke or two, but he's a renowned physician with a local practice. Email him with your questions.