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Interesterification: The next 'Frankenfat' replacing trans fats?
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An interview with Cardiac Nutritionist Margaret Pfeiffer, MS, RD, CLS

Cardiac nutritionist, Margaret Pfeifer, joins the Track Your Plaque team to help us craft advice for our unique brand of heart healthy, plaque-controlling nutrition. Margaret’s special strength is creating interesting recipes that incorporate the principles we believe are important to heart health, while not giving in to the misinformation that often passes as “heart healthy.”

Margaret brings her views on the underappreciated issue of interesterification of fats.

TYP: You brought the intriguing issue of interesterification of fats to our attention. Could you start by telling us what interesterification means? Is this purely a product of food manufacturing or can interesterified fats be found in natural products?

MP: Interesterification is a process that re-arranges the fatty acids of oils in what I believe to be an undesirable way.

Naturally occurring fats have an arrangement of fatty acids in a specific pattern that is characteristic for each particular oil.
As consumers demand removal of trans fats, food manufacturers are looking for other “man-made” alternatives. Enzyme interesterification is one of the new technologies being used to replace partially hydrogenated fats.

An enzyme which acts as a catalyst removes fatty acids molecule from the main glycerol backbone so that the manufacturer can rearrange them in whatever combination they desire. The interesterification process can produce tailor-made fats that are solid or liquid depending upon the combination used. The process of hydrogenation is used in interesterification, yet it does not change a cis double bond into a trans double bond so no trans fats are formed.

Let’s say you are a manufacturer who used partially hydrogenated soybean oil to make your product. You now need to find an alternative. You could use a saturated fat such as coconut oil, but some consumers might be opposed to that oil, since we have a long history of bashing all saturated fats. Another saturated fatty acid, stearic acid, which is the predominant fat in chocolate and cocoa butter, does not increase cholesterol levels like other saturated fats. What if you could take the stearic out of different oils and put it in something like liquid soybean oil to replace one of the polyunsaturated fats with this neutral saturated fat to create a solid at room temperature, that is also trans fat free and cholesterol-neutral? Now you have a product that you can still call soybean oil but mimics a saturated fat.

Is meddling with the way nature set up these fats harmless? We don’t know for sure yet if the specific location of individual fatty acids on the glycerol molecule will affect the metabolism of fat and glucose and how the body handles this new man-made fat.

TYP: Because interesterification is already being used by the food manufacturing industry, could you give us an idea of where we might encounter it?

MP: Until recently, the process of interesterification was cost-prohibitive for wide use. Enzymatic interesterification has been in use for more than 25 years, primarily for infant nutrition and others with fat malabsorption disorders. But by increasing the life of the enzyme, the costs have decreased, allowing it to become a viable option for food manufacturers.

Interesterification is quickly becoming the method of choice for foods that require a long shelf life. Interesterified fats are currently found in many packaged and processed foods, such as crackers, cereals, and cookies, as well as many margarines as a replacement for trans fats. They are not required to be on labels, although you may see them typically listed as “fully hydrogenated” or “high in stearic acid.” Enova Oil is manufactured by 1,3 lipase-mediated interesterification of canola and soybean oils with glycerol to create a liquid oil.

TYP: I understand that the issue of interesterification of fats is still relatively new. Is there any evidence that they might be harmful?

MP: The effects of interesterified fats have been sparsely studied. Most of the studies involve animals, not humans. One small study of 30 people compared trans-rich and interesterified fats with a naturally occurring saturated fat. The 3 diets were rotated over a four-week period. It confirmed what we already know about trans fats having a negative affect on LDL and HDL cholesterol. The interesterified fats had a similar impact, although slightly less than trans fat. Of even greater concern was the effect on increasing glucose levels.

While one study is not enough to know for sure, it does raise concerns that more research is needed to investigate the potential adverse impact on postprandial glucose found in this study.

TYP: What is your practical advice on interesterified fats?

MP: It took many years of conflicting studies to understand and get trans fats eliminated. Whether there is harm from interesterified fats remains to be seen and will take years to determine.

Do we want to take a chance on another new replacement fat that doesn’t occur in nature? Wouldn’t it be wiser to stick with naturally occurring saturated fats that do not have the negative effects of trans and interesterified fats?

To avoid man-made fats that try to trick nature, your best bet is avoid processed foods and eat real whole foods. Shop in the produce section and the fresh meat, fish, and poultry sections. Be wary of packaged foods unless you know that the ingredients listed are real foods.

Some brands of interesterified fats manufacturers may be using: NovaLipid™, Enova, Neobee MCT, Neobee MLT, Benefat, Salatrim.

My advice: Until we know better, avoid them.

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