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Fats are solids at room temperature whereas oils are liquids at room temperature. There are at least two classifiable types of fats within the commonplace classifications of regular, saturated, and unsaturated fats. Animals and plants use fat for storage of energy, to aid with the absorption of carotenoids, and vitamins A, D, E, and K, and ensure proper growth, development, and maintenance of good health (Kimbrough 2009, p. 3). Consequently, fats are generally very important players in metabolism. However, the type of fat is also a significant factor in the health of human beings. Saturated fats are markedly dangerous for human health because they increase the level of the “bad” cholesterol in the body, which increases the risk of heart attacks and other heart diseases. On the other hand, unsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil, nuts, fish with omega-3 fatty acids, and nuts among other sources are very important in the human diet because they reduce the level of the ‘bad’ cholesterol while increasing the level of ‘good’ cholesterol in the body (Kimbrough 2009, p. 6). However, since all fats contain calories, even unsaturated fats should be consumed within the recommended amounts.
Trans-fats are unsaturated fats and so for almost ten decades, the world believed that they were an acceptable alternative to saturated fats. However, scientists are coming up with evidence to rebut this theory and instead prove that trans-fats are a health hazard and human beings should reduce their intake of the same to a bare minimal. This assertion holds because trans-fats reduce the level of the ‘good’ cholesterol, while simultaneously increasing the level of the ‘bad’ cholesterol in the body. Since these fats have extra hydrogen, they have higher cholesterol composition and they are more difficult to digest than other fats. Therefore, they are clearly a health hazard. Nevertheless, since all manufacturers use trans-fats due to their preferred qualities, viz. food staying ‘fresh’ for longer, stays on the shelf longer, and has a less greasy feel, they are present in almost all the food products available in the market especially under fast food categories and eliminating them shall take a while (Micha 2010, p. 883).
Consequently, the Food and Drug Administration as well as other affiliated health bodies across the world are coming up with directives requiring food processors to indicate the amount of trans-fats in any food product. However, the problem with this move is that presently, if a serving contains less than 0.5gms of trans-fat, it is permissible for the processor to indicate 0gms (Micha 2010, p. 883). This aspect is risky because if a person has many servings, s/he can easily surpass the recommended threshold to his or her detriment. Consequently, spreading awareness of nutritional make up seems a better way to tackle the issue as people can keep track of their consumption.
Fats have a chemical structure that is similar regardless of the type and it consists of a three-carbon glycerol backbone (triglyceride) with long chain fatty acids. It looks like the letter “E”, but the horizontal lines are long and wavy. The carbon chains contain 12-20 carbon atoms (Teegala 2009, p. 1250). In case the triglyceride backbone and the long chain fatty acid merge, a water (H2O) molecule is lost.
Saturated fats refer to those with single carbon-carbon bonds, hence they have three hydrogen atoms are attached at every end of the long chain of fatty acids, which means that the chain is saturated with hydrogen atoms and cannot take more in any way. Such fats’ three-dimensional structure is tubular and since fats are non-polar hydrocarbons, the various molecules stick together courtesy of van der Waal’s forces, which are weak intermolecular forces (Teegala 2009, p. 1250). The stronger this bond, the more difficult it is for such a fat to melt. The magnitude of van der Waals is directly proportional to the amount of molecular surfaces available for contact. Saturated fats have more surfaces due to the large number of CH2 molecules stacked up together. Consequently, this aspect increases the van der Waals forces, thus necessitating more energy to separate the molecules and thus raising the melting point of this fat. In small amounts, saturated fats are fine in the human diet, but in excess, they cause obesity, high blood pressure, heart diseases, and cancers. They occur naturally in mammals and in some tropical plants.
The main source of unsaturated fats is plants and some fish (Teegala 2009, p. 1250). The only difference between them and saturated fats is structural for they have occasional double carbon=carbon bonds, which means that there is room for additional hydrogen atoms on the chains hence they are unsaturated. They could be either monounsaturated meaning that they have a single double bond or polyunsaturated, referring to the presence of several double bonds. Naturally occurring unsaturated fats feature ‘Cis’ bonds, where “Cis is Latin for ‘on this side’, which means that the two hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the double bond and both ends of the long carbon chain are on the same side” (Genser et al. 2012, p. 444). However, if the hydrogen atoms are on opposite sides and the ends of the long chains are on the opposite sides, the resultant molecule is called a “Trans” fat, where Trans is Latin for across (Genser et al. 2012, p. 444).
The effect of this phenomenon is that where Cis bonding occurs, the resultant molecules are not 3-D tubes like in saturated fats. Instead, they form folds and bends on the chain, thus reducing the number of attractive surfaces for inter-molecular contact. Consequently, the van der Waals force in unsaturated fats is weaker, and thus they are liquids at room temperature.
This refers to “…the utilisation of a set of principles that reduces or eliminates the use or generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture and application of chemical products” (Anastas & Warner 2000, p.53). Saturated fats are solids at room temperature and so they are an unattractive consumer option. However, unsaturated fats in their naturally occurring state are not ideal either. From a food processing and shelf life perspective, unsaturated fats are enemies of production because their composition leaves them vulnerable to oxidation (reacting with oxygen in the air), which results in a stench and a bad taste in the food prepared using such fats. Consequently, if producers were to use unsaturated fats in production, the food would go stale and greasy before it hits the market.
As a result, there is a conflict of interest as producers and manufacturers would prefer to produce food using the healthier unsaturated fats, but this would cost them dearly as the food would go rancid in no time. In a bid to avert this risk, about a century ago, scientists in Europe came up with the idea of partial hydrogenation as the solution. Proof of this move is in the 1911 Proctor and Gamble (American company) Crisco product used as shortening for the margarine, which replaced butter during the WWI and WWII as well as the Great Depression as a cheaper and healthier alternative (Kimbrough 2009, p. 5).
The process of partial hydrogenation is simple, viz. a Cis bonded fat is heated in the presence of hydrogen gas and a metal catalyst such as nickel. This reaction causes the double bond to break and a hydrogen atom to attach to each of the carbon atoms. In case all the double bonds break, it becomes a saturated fat. However, if some double bonds survive, they are converted from Cis bonds to Trans bonds. Nevertheless, the double bonds remain. Trans-fats are unsaturated, but they are less likely to oxidise and have a longer shelf life in solid form. Consumers prefer semi-solid Trans-fats to saturated fats that are fully solid at room temperature.
As noted above, fats provide storage for energy in both plants and animals, which means that they are a requisite part of the biological make up of any organism. In human beings, the recommended quantity of fat in a diet is set at a third of the daily calorie intake. This information is necessary in averting the risk of advancing a misunderstanding in light of the negative picture portrayed of the abovementioned fats. Fats are necessary for the various metabolic processes in organisms. However, it is also important to examine the various effects of different kinds of fat in the organism’s system. Due to the limitations caused by the scope of this paper, this particular discussion shall gravitate around human beings. As introduced above, there are at least four types of fat including saturated, unsaturated, Trans, and Cis fats. Saturated fats have tubular structure in a three-dimensional perspective and as such, the van der Waals forces are stronger between respective molecules due to the increased exposure of attractive surface. This aspect further translates to an increase of the melting point for more energy is a requirement for the break down of these bonds. Consequently, if one’s diet is packed with saturated fat products, s/he is likely to gain weight and then spend a lot of time and energy trying to lose the same. Regrettable, some repercussions such as bad cholesterol cannot be solved simply by a few hours of working out.
On the other hand, the consumption of unsaturated fats with Cis bonds is healthy, although this should also occur in moderation (Kristensen 2011, p. 1053). These fats form a curly mass of molecules that is not near as neat as that of saturated fats. Consequently, these fats are unstable and they easily react with other elements in the air such as oxygen. Their sensitive nature means that it does not take too much energy to get them to react, neither are there strong intermolecular or van der Waals forces that would raise their melting points and thus require lots of energy to break. Consequently, the drawbacks of feeding on these fats are that they cause food to go rancid very fast and within the body, they are largely responsible for sweating and the production of lactic acid, which causes joint pains and aches after a workout session. However, they are a healthier choice because not only do they increase the levels of good cholesterol in the human system, but they also reduce the levels of bad cholesterol within the human system. As a result, they are definitely the lesser and healthier risk in terms of an energy storage choice.
Trailing in the category of fats is Trans-fats, which are unsaturated fats that have undergone partial hydrogenation (Kristensen 2011, p. 1053). They still serve the purpose of fats in terms of storing energy, but the accompanying risk is too high a price to pay as aforementioned.
This paper has discussed the phenomenon of Trans-fats as a modern dilemma. There are opposing views on the benefits of these fats based on the various interests represented by respective opponents and proponents. The manufacturers, producers, and processors of food and these fats base their suppositions on the fact that trans-fats are ideal in the industry because they promote the shelf life of processed foods and give them a fresh look as well as reducing the greasy feel of old food. However, on the opponents’ side, the argument is that these fats are not healthy because they are responsible for a myriad of heart diseases and it clearly heart diseases are a leading killer of both men and women across the world. Unfortunately, the vices of Trans-fats are a recent discovery as they came into being more than a century ago and for approximately that long, doctors recommended trans-products such as margarine as a healthier alternative to butter for patients with high cholesterol and heart diseases. As such, majority of the public is still unaware of the counter effects of these fats, but studies such as these are likely to spread awareness and increase public knowledge, hence steering the public into healthier living.
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